Building a Fusion Industry Advisory Committee
Here in Washington, DC, the country approaches a landmark election season. After November 9, we should expect a great deal of changes around town, no matter who wins. The early days of a new Administration are key in setting the agenda for the next four years, and ASP is beginning to lay the groundwork for an argument that now is the time to invest in the next generation of energy technology.
In particular, we think that fusion research stands at a turning point. It seems like every week I read of a new fusion start-up with an idea of how to harness fusion. With the entrance of new private sector companies, records set at MIT, ongoing construction at ITER, and ongoing research around the country, this is an exciting time to be around fusion.
MIT’s announcement that the Plasma Science and Fusion Center set a new world record for plasma pressure in the Institute’s Alcator C-Mod tokamak was a remarkable achievement that shows the promise that reactors using very high magnetic fields could be a promising route for practical fusion reactors. Although the record was set on the day that the Alcator C-Mod was decommissioned, MIT researchers have plans for new designs that could move fusion forward faster and cheaper than we could imagine.
While the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory has suffered a setback in the NSTX-U facility, one of the lessons that we should all learn from past successes is that you can learn as much from disappointments as from successes.
Tri Alpha, who continues to drive press attention since their emergence last year in Time Magazine, has decommissioned their facility in order to build a more power new test-reactor. The process is detailed in a just-released Scientific American piece, “Can Small Fusion Energy Start-ups Conquer the Problems That Killed the Giants?” Companies like Tri Alpha, General Fusion, Helion Energy, and Tokamak Energy are proving that there is a pathway with private funding.
In August, I participated in the one-year review conference for ARPA-E’s ALPHA program, which aims to develop fusion research into a range of programs that researchers think could prove to lead to cheaper, faster designs of a working commercial reactor. Although the program has only finished its first year, grant recipients are optimistic about the outcomes so far and have begun exploring how to continue the program beyond its current 3-year lifespan.
And we are beginning to see results here in Washington. The bipartisan energy bill, now in a House-Senate conference committee, includes two sections of interest to the fusion community: one that would target investments in advanced nuclear, and one specifically directed at fusion research. Neither promise new funding, but could set the agenda for the coming years. We are hopeful that budget negotiations on the coming year’s appropriations will be favorable for fusion research after that is passed in the Lame-Duck session of Congress.
This is important because we all know that no technology will have a greater impact on the energy, economic, and environmental security of the United States than fusion power. Even so, that awareness has not yet filtered into the consciousness of policymakers. That’s why ASP’s new initiative to build a Fusion Industry Advisory Committee as a part of our Business Council for American Security is so critical. I would encourage everyone in the fusion industry who wants to be involved in our campaign to contact me here at ASP. Government support for fusion is not guaranteed. ASP needs your help as we all navigate the coming changes.
There has been tremendous progress in decades past toward the demonstration of controlled fusion energy in experiments conducted at national laboratories and privately funded ventures. Progress in this area has accelerated in recent years, with the investment community becoming interested and active participants in the extraordinary opportunity this energy source will ultimately provide. Nevertheless, there are considerable risks for these investors, for example: in devising new materials that can withstand energy fluxes of unprecedented levels, the cost-efficient manufacture of tritium fuels, government oversight and regulation of a new nuclear industry, etc. For these reasons, and many more, the continued participation of the Federal Government is essential to help mitigate the uncertainties that will inevitably be addressed, and that must be based on the advice of specialists from representative industries.
Achieving breakeven fusion may require making it a national security issue. I would recommend a sustained, diverse portfolio of approaches, including magneto-inertial fusion, z-pinch, stellerator or other non-tokamak magnetic confinement, and fission/fusion hybrid advanced concepts. Programs in both DOE (for energy) and NASA (for interplanetary spaceflight) should be maintained for over a 20 year period, evaluated every 5 years or so to make midcourse corrections as needed.
For years I have been trying to awaken the financial world to the probability that ONLY private sector funding can fulfill fusion’s promise as the best – indeed only – way to worldwide baseload electricity supply. We know how to do it, now, but it needs a proof-of-concept facility to show it.
What we don’t need is yet another method – let’s take the physics we know best, and use it! A small-scale (100.150 MWth) spherical tokamak-based power plant (SSTPP) using state-of-the-art super-conducting magnetics with a tritium breeding (probably liquid) first wall and tungsten divertors, coupled to an isotope separation / storage facility, high temperature heat exchangers and modern-day electricity generators.
I know of an absolutely ideal site in the US, which I have already visited three times, on which to build a US NFEDC (National Fusion Engineering Center), using totally private funding, on which would sit the SSTPP and numerous other big and less-big FE engineering projects. I have a 15-page project outline, with siting, timing, personnel, and budget details. A budget of US$ 3bn over the first 8 years would include the full SSTPP project plus all NFEDC basic infrastructure.
I have approached dozens of multi-billionaires, including the Bill Gates-led Breakthrough Energy Coalition BEC (and its daughter, the BE Ventures group), all to NO effect.
Any suggestions? Any volunteers to raise capital?