Interesting Op Ed piece in the 2011 Jul 11 New York Times by Dr. Stewart Prager on the status and potentials for fusion power. Dr. Prager is the Director of the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL); he does a good job presenting a cogent case for fusion energy.
I want to take this opportunity to reinforce Prager’s Op Ed column and this comment represents a large skip-ahead in my informal posting schedule.
Prager’s clear comments respond to the same comment/question that I have fielded for the last 25 years → “Ok, you say fusion is possible. So, why have you guys said nearly every day for the last 50 years that it will be only 20 more years until we really produce power?” A variant on this would be “Now that fusion attempts have failed, why should we put more good money into the private playground of a select few?”
Personally, I usually respond with my 30 sec sound bite: “Yes, fusion energy is highly feasible, and the time to grid power is probably never.“
Prager hit the high points
- Fusion power is a demonstrated fact The difficult physics and technologies required for a 100 Million Degree plasma has become highly developed. We know how to build machines to hold such a plasma for 8+ minutes at a time.
I can attest to this. The “thermometer” type device I built and operated on the Doublet-III tokamak in the early 1980’s, measured plasma temperature well into the fusion generation range of over 100 M degrees, and held it for at least 5 seconds. (10 years earlier, I did my thesis work on 10,000 degree plasma in a device that held plasma for 30 msec.) Such temperatures have been routine now for over 30 years.
- Fusion research is not the toy of a scientific elite Fusion is the strong, joint-research effort of many nations. ITER, the International Tokamak Experimental Reactor, represents the concern by the world’s political and technical leaders about energy supplies this century as petroleum becomes hard to produce and very expensive by 2011 standards (or 1985 standards, too). The 6 core countries in the ITER consortium are EU (all 24 members count as one) , Japan, India, So. Korea, China, and Russia. These have joined to contribute funds and scientists to the ITER program. To this list, tack on the U.S. as a sometimes partner.
The U.S. is the 7th official partner, currently. It was one of the original instigators and supporters for a large fusion test device in 1985, helped launch 1988 design efforts for ITER, withdrew in 1999 because it was too costly, rejoined in 2003, about the time Canada withdrew due to its own funding issues, withdrew in 2007 when it withheld FY 2008 funding, rejoined in late 2008 with reduced contributions, proposed 41% reduction in contribution for 2011. Would you count on the U.S. as a stable partner?
- National fusion energy technology test beds are under construction all around the globe. Prager lists China, Germany, Japan, and So. Korea as those with modern new facilities being designed or actually built. He could have included a number of other countries, but these are the largest, with fusion based engineering issues their primary goals.
The UK has upgraded its 30 year old JET (Joint European Torus) facility to be an ITER test lab and it has its innovative MAST (mega amp spherical tokamak) unit for innovative work.
We in the U.S. are in the unique situation of having started the fusion effort with the stellarator design. We then launched a fleet of large tokamak facilities based on the successful Russian design. We started turning our backs on all this in mid 1980’s. ITER was proposed in 1988 after our ETR (Engineering Test Reactor) was dismissed out of hand before 1988. By the way, ETR would have had the same target plasma capabilities as ITER. The 1988 proposal for INTOR ( the International Torus) was also rejected, and ITER was finally accepted in concept, in 1988.
You say: So add 20 years. Why was ITER task not completed by 2008? No! ITER began construction only in the last several years. Start up is defined as first plasma, currently delayed until 2018. Add 20 to that.
The U.S. still operates its 35 yr old DIII-D facility in San Diego, upgrade of the one I worked on in the early 1980’s. MIT operates its Alcator upgrades and there are a scattering of other university tokamaks across the continent.
Sometimes I think we have stopped work on more innovative programs than there are new ideas (This includes a beautiful spherical tokamak program and an innovative stellarator, both were being built at Dr. Prager’s PPPL).
- The United States has lacked the political will to succeed. Actually, Dr. Prager said we lacked the will — the last 2 words are mine own. He says that this will not be cheap: $30 billion (30 G USD) to build and operate. The US economy puts in about $1.5 trillion (1.5 T USD). ITER and fusion power is costly, but this cost is only about about two weeks of energy consumption by the United States. He ends with the comment that fusion energy development … “is a litmus test for the willingness of our nation to tackle the tough challenges”.
Funding this is not a task for private industries. Companies, especially US ones, operate on a 3-6 month horizon. Most everything that works and is large was done with Government funds: the Interstate system, the rail system across the continent (another topic for a set of posts), and our Space program including the Apollo/Saturn-V moon landers, SkyLab, space shuttles, and the International Space Station. This Space program redefines expensive. it almost matches one of our wars – Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan. The development of fusion energy is dwarfed by these wonderful adventures.
I want to say “Yes, we can,” but that phrase has been made trite and meaningless nowadays. The development of fusion power is vital to our national interest, and to all the other countries that want to stay “modern.” Payoff for its success would support us on through the coming decades and centuries, continuing on for many millennia.
I am not optimistic about fusion energy development, but I wish the technical fusion folks well. They are sacrificing themselves to an unbelievably important cause. I am really afraid trends of the last several decades have generated a sea-change in American attitudes, though. One of the foundation goals for LastTechAge is to trace what led us, the American people, to turn our collective backs on energy problems and ignore the vast set of opportunities for solutions that we held in our hands.
BTW, the image on the New York Times seems to be tied to Prager’s essay. It is in unbelievably bad taste. The little editors must have thought a night map of a city with a nuclear explosion at its heart was just so very fusion. Did I indicate yet that it is an insult to Dr. Prager and the other scientists and engineers – some of whom I worked with, all of whom I deeply respect?
Update: 2012 Mar 01 The American fusion program is under attack by the budget wonks, read about it at Twilight of the Gods?. Laser fusions premier facility, the National Ignition Facility is behind schedule in fusion power efforts. See NIF Retasked? .
Update: 2012 Nov 01 Dr Prager also defends fusion energy after expected NIF laser fails to meet its promise. Reference to his DotEarth blog response in LastTechAge’s Fusion Energy – Kill The Beast .
Charles J. Armentrout, Ann Arbor
2011 Jul 11
Listed under Technology … Technology > MFE
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