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US plans for future of fusion research

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As the international ITER project to develop an experimental nuclear fusion reactor eats into research budgets around the world, an advisory panel to the US Department of Energy recommends mothballing at least one of three major experiments and focusing on research necessary to bring ITER online.

The Fusion Energy Sciences Advisory Committee (FESAC) released its report on 22 September at a meeting in Gaithersburg, Maryland. The document outlines a 10-year plan for US nuclear fusion research for various budget scenarios, the most optimistic of which calls for “modest growth”.

Nuclear fusion offers the potential for producing practically limitless energy by smashing heavy atoms of hydrogen into helium inside a burning 100-million-kelvin plasma and capturing the energy released by the reaction — but scientific and engineering challenges remain.

The report says the US should focus research initiatives on the biggest impediments to ITER’s donut-like design, called a tokamak — how to control the writhing plasma at the reactor’s core, and understanding how it interacts with surrounding material in order to engineer walls that can maintain the reaction.

To free up money, the report recommends ceasing operations at the Alcator C-Mod reactor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge starting in 2015. Congress cut its funding in 2012, but efforts from Massachusetts lawmakers allowed it to resume operations this year. Depending on budget scenarios, the panel suggests that one other US fusion facility — the DIII-D operated by the defense firm General Atomics in San Diego or the National Spherical Torus Experiment in Princeton, New Jersey — could also face the chopping block five years later.

The panel recommends construction of new facilities including a linear system to simulate tokamak conditions, as well as beefing up an existing neutron irradiation source — possibly one at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee.

In the future, the report envisions an extensive nuclear fusion research programme centred around a national US fusion nuclear science facility, but this would require increased funding.

One thing the committee was not allowed to reconsider was the US commitment to ITER, the international attempt to build an experimental fusion reactor. With its construction soaring in cost to US$50 billion — ten times the original figure — and falling 11 years behind schedule, it is the most expensive scientific experiment in history. Its woes have attracted widespread criticism and eaten into research budgets for other fusion experiments around the world.

Some found the report uninspired. “The scale and cost of ITER should give the US community pause,” says Stephen Dean, the head of Fusion Power Associates, an advocacy group in Gaithersburg, Maryland. “There’s no evidence in here of a recognition that maybe we ought to try to look for something better.

Others question the closure of MIT’s Alcator C-Mod. “I think there are good reasons for having C-Mod run several more years,” said Dale Smith, former director of the fusion programme at Argonne National Laboratory near Chicago, Illinois.

Although the smallest of the three major US facilities, C-Mod specialises in studying the boundary between the plasma and its reactor walls — one of the “tier 1” research initiatives identified in the report. “We’re kind of at a loss” to explain the discrepancy, said Martin Greenwald, the associate director of MIT’s Plasma Science and Fusion Center. The report is “pretty close” to a death blow for the facility, he said, but he held out hope that the scientific community might rally to its aid.

19 Comments on "US plans for future of fusion research"

  1. Meld on Tue, 23rd Sep 2014 2:47 pm 

    This is such a perfect example of WHY societies collapse. Get a real job you government nipple suckling mystics

  2. Plantagenet on Tue, 23rd Sep 2014 4:28 pm 

    Doing science is a real job. Now get back to your spot in the assembly line and keep making those widgets—your making all the other workers fall behind in their daily quota of widgets.

  3. tahoe1780 on Tue, 23rd Sep 2014 5:42 pm 

    Money would be much better spent developing thorium reactors. China’s building them
    If only the technology was available to Iran….

  4. longtimber on Tue, 23rd Sep 2014 6:20 pm 

    Rays O life do just fine, thank you SunGod(s) , from a safe distance , Just 1 AU. Got PV and a Hot Water Tank?

  5. longtimber on Tue, 23rd Sep 2014 6:44 pm 

    A spent an amazing day of my life with a VC group exploring the Scuttled Super Collider complex in Texas, which Clinton killed. Shame it was not in Arkansas. It dwarfs anything else on the planet. We were scoping out the feasibility for an Applied Materials PV production line. It would have been the 1st under $1.00 / watt production line in the world. Needless to say there is Manhattan size infrastructure to do anything. This complex could crank out multi GW of PV a WEEK, It’s Privately held by a name you know.

  6. tahoe1780 on Tue, 23rd Sep 2014 6:44 pm 

    Long, I hear you, but PV won’t mine the ore and fabricate it into that ‘dozer you’re driving. Nor will it power it.

  7. longtimber on Tue, 23rd Sep 2014 6:52 pm 

    Fusion won’t either ( At least in my lifetime ).

  8. tahoe1780 on Tue, 23rd Sep 2014 7:38 pm 

    True, but LFTR Thorium fission has a real chance. As the wiki article states, working units were built and operated, but the technology was abandoned because it doesn’t produce weapons-grade materials.

  9. Makati1 on Tue, 23rd Sep 2014 7:52 pm 

    Fusion is a joke Mother Nature is playing on us. She has her’s and it will be the only one forever. We have some clones called nukes that will likely do us in long before we even get close to our own fusion system.

    And, if it is so huge, how much energy does it take to just make ONE reactor? I would be willing to bet that it takes at least a few billion barrels of oil energy to do so, if the pictures I have been seeing are correct. Not going to happen.

    Meld is correct. Just a bunch of government employees sucking at the taxpayer’s teat. But the taxpayer is dying and the dreams of fusion are still (always) 30 years away.

  10. Stercus Feri on Tue, 23rd Sep 2014 8:00 pm 

    Global agriculture burns diesel

  11. jjhman on Tue, 23rd Sep 2014 8:18 pm 

    Ha ha. I worked at General Atomic(s) in the 1970s. I was involved with Thorium based fission reactors, Gas Cooled Fast Reactors and, marginally, the fusion program.

    I heard all of the same promises then, in 1979 when I left, that are being promised now. And,regarding fusion, the same problems; containing the multi-jillion degree plasma. Maybe some things can’t be done and some things shouldn’t be done.

    Pardon my lack of faith.

  12. Perk Earl on Tue, 23rd Sep 2014 8:48 pm 

    If we could just condense projected time periods to perfect fusion into very short periods of time, who knows, maybe we could have fusion by xmas this year. I want a fusion powered car, but I hear it runs hot and may damage my cells with free neutrons.

  13. Perk Earl on Wed, 24th Sep 2014 12:42 am 

    I was pretty tired when I wrote that earlier. Lesson; never write when your eyes are forcing themselves shut.

  14. longtimber on Wed, 24th Sep 2014 9:00 am 

    “Global agriculture burns diesel” Modern Life’s bloodstream is diesel, Global or Local. It all might stay up a few hours w/o diesel, Grid, Hospitals, Walmart, etc. With the Gov reporting Moonshine as oil now, Wonder how to estimate USA % diesel baseload requirements are met imported vs domestic. Liquids such as LTO in the mix really confuses things.

  15. eastbay on Wed, 24th Sep 2014 9:24 am 

    Still twenty years away. As always.

  16. Norm on Wed, 24th Sep 2014 6:16 pm 

    Tahoe nailed it. Thorium fission is all you need. No need for cynics, its solid and will work. Edward Teller said so. The problem is your politician, who is dum ER than a box of rocks . BTW Uranium fission in water is awful, Fukushima dont lie. Back to fusion, this thing is pre advertised, NO it won’t work. Its not got any plan to work. Its just a toy not an energy source. They could have done Thorium fission with that money, but no no no, that would solve the problem. that’s not allowed, children.

  17. Nony on Wed, 24th Sep 2014 6:20 pm 

    Uranium and a breeder cycle. Yum, yum. PWR and emergency cooling from natural circ and water storage for makeup (gravity fed).

  18. Norm on Wed, 24th Sep 2014 6:22 pm 

    You could make so much cheap energy with Thorium fission, we could run chemical plants that convert CO2 and water back info diesel. If that’s what you want for fuel. Just your politician already decided, “hey you all have to be stupid like us politicians”. Its not allowed to develop the new processes, only waste money on pork that dont make energy.

  19. Makati1 on Wed, 24th Sep 2014 9:29 pm 

    Conflicting info is rampant on the internet. Some claim that Thorium waste CAN be used for nukes. Some say that it was already done in 1955 by the US in some nuclear tests. India is supposed to have several operating Thorium reactors producing electric today.

    I suspect that the decision was made by the M.I.C. to go with what we have today, overly dangerous and expensive nuclear weapons producers that also make electric. Given the costs to replace those 100+ US reactors, it will never happen. The decision was made for us long ago by our masters. Now we have to live and die with it.

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