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Event Recap: Powering the Future – Prospects for Fusion Energy

Event Recap: Powering the Future – Prospects for Fusion Energy

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Main Points:

  • Fusion can provide clean (emission free) energy and help create a new high-tech industry.
  • Private companies are investing in novel fusion experiments
  • U.S. is moving fusion from an energy to a science initiative, with no plans to get into engineering of it or build a engineering test reactor. With current funding levels U.S. will become a support program for other countries to build demos, and not a world leader in fusion.

On Tuesday, Andrew Holland, ASP’s Senior Fellow for Energy and Climate Change, Michael Delage, V.P. of Strategy and Corporate Development at General Fusion, and Steve Dean, President of Fusion Power Associates convened to talk about the future of fusion energy. Starting the conversation, Holland said “when we talk about next generation energy, an important part of that is fusion… it is literally the power of the stars.” Holland went on to explain the basic principles of fusion. He explained that although the domestic fusion program was founded in the 1950’s, the U.S isn’t producing fusion energy yet. First, it is very difficult science. Although the U.S. has been researching it for a long time, the amount of research funding is not necessarily on par with the promise of it. Fusion is clean (no emissions) and would help create a new high-tech industry. He continued, saying that it is about American leadership. “If we’re not making investments, it doesn’t mean the rest of the world isn’t.”  ASP recently published a fusion white paper laying out a ten-year vision for the field. It calls for a fusion commissioner to increase political will and pressure to advance the field. The U.S. must pursue multiple and parallel research paths and actively collaborate with businesses and industry. He asked, “Can we plan for something that is beyond any president’s time in office, beyond political terms? We need to think about this in long term.”

Michael Delage from General Fusion opened by refuting the statement that fusion energy “has been 20 years away since 50 years ago.” Looking at progress in terms of metrics, fusion energy has grown as fast as Moore’s Law. The difference between 1970’s fusion and today’s fusion is like the difference between a smart phone and the first calculator 30, 40 years ago. He then talked about the two big kinds of fusion research, Magnetic Fusion and Laser Fusion (Inertial Confinement Fusion). The difference in plasma density between the two approaches is 10 trillion. There is a large opportunity for fusion at intermediate density levels. National laboratories have a few experiments, including the Z-machine, but there is something interesting going on in private companies. Citing an article in Science, he read

Traditionally, fusion energy research has meant huge efforts like the $20 billion multinational ITER project and $3.5 billion National Ignition Facility. But that may be changing. In unassuming industrial units across North America, Europe, and elsewhere, small teams of scientists and engineers supported partly or entirely by private finance are working out novel approaches to fusion. Their goal: to design financially viable power reactors simpler and cheaper than the government-funded behemoths and to build them faster. Some of the new technologies look bizarre, but venture capitalists are convinced that each holds at least a slim chance of an enormous payoff.

Delage then explained the fusion experiment being built at General Fusion. The company is focusing on building components at full-scale in order to test the science of their experiment. While General Fusion is mostly privately funded, the company works with the national laboratory system. The pace of innovation is moving quickly as the company leverages the private sector model.

Steve Dean, head of Fusion Power Associates, was the final speaker of the panel. He gave an overview of the history of fusion research, and explained that the idea behind ITER (an engineering test reactor) was created through the Magnetic Fusion Energy Engineering Act in 1980. Due to increasing international collaboration, the test reactor that was supposed to be on the grid in 2000 is still now being built in France. Collaboration with other countries “took up the entire decade, so instead of building it, they had this big organization, but no plans of where to put it.” As Korea and China are designing demonstration power plants to go on line between 2035-2050, we’re on track internationally, if not domestically. “Domestically, it’s a sad story that the U.S. Congress and government doesn’t want to get into the engineering of it.” The fusion program is anchored in the office of science, so while there is scientific work being done, there is no engineering or technology development, and no plans to build a fusion demonstration power plant.  He said that fusion is being pushed from an energy initiative to a science one.

The panel then mentioned funding in fusion, including ARPA-E for mid-density range plasmas, and the FESAC report draft that lays out a 10-year domestic budget plan.  Steve Dean noted that the draft assumes the US will be a world leader in fusion, but he thinks this is not possible with the current budgets. The US could be a leader in fusion science, but would operate more as a support program for other parties to build demos. There was concern that the effect of lack of funding was affecting the next generation of scientists.  When asked by a physics student what the prospects for domestic fusion experiments were in the future, the panel responded that while prospects do not look bright today, ten years is a long time. Holland stated “The promise [of fusion] is so great. There might be a breakthrough, the dam might break and everything will come flooding out. How can you not invest in this? It is too important to ignore. The challenge is great, but that hasn’t stopped us before.”

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