Science & Tech

The Fusion Revolution

Men work inside a HL-2M Tokamak nuclear fusion reactor, dubbed as the “artificial sun”, under construction in Chengdu, Sichuan province, China, June 5, 2019. (Liu Haiyun/Chengdu Economic Daily via Reuters)
Why we need fusion power — and why it’s grand that free enterprise is picking up the challenge.

During the summer of 1985, I was a part of an engineering team at Los Alamos National Lab working on the first design of a fusion reactor based on the then very advanced spherical-tokamak (ST) concept. At a group lunch toward the end of the effort, our team leader, Robert Krakowski, reflected philosophically.

“You know,” Krakowski said, “when fusion power is finally developed, it won’t be at a place like Los Alamos or Livermore. It will be done by a couple of crackpots working in a garage.”

We all laughed at this, knowing full well how the formidable difficulties of fusion-power development put such a feat well beyond the capabilities of garage inventors. But in recent years the trend has moved forcefully toward validating Krakowski’s prophecy. Around the world, well-funded entrepreneurial efforts have begun to make fusion power a reality. Indeed, many of them are now outpacing official government programs. At this rate, there is an excellent chance that the first controlled thermonuclear fusion reactors will be ignited before this decade is out — if not by crackpots in a garage, then perhaps by a team of start-up company engineers working in a warehouse.

In his book, The Star Builders: Nuclear Fusion and the Race to Power the Planet, Arthur Turrell reports on some of this activity. In his telling, though, he slights it — apparently viewing it as a sideshow to the flagship International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) and National Ignition Facility (NIF) programs. This is a mistake.

Planning for the ITER program first began in the 1980s, and by the summer of 1985 was already viewed as a “scandal” by many working on the front lines of the fusion program. Fusion had made steady progress between the 1950s and ’80s, driven by a lively competition between the U.S., European, Soviet, and Japanese programs. But then the bureaucrats overseeing these efforts collectively agreed that this competition was putting too much stress on everyone and decided to collapse each program into a single united global effort called ITER.

Progress in fusion-power development was then brought to a screeching halt as no new machines beyond the mid-Eighties technology — namely, the American TFTR and the European JET devices — were built. Nearly all advanced non-tokamak-concept research was shut down, and funds that should have gone toward building the generation of tokamaks that could have taken us beyond the near-breakeven results TFTR and JET ultimately achieved in the early Nineties were diverted to sending high-level bureaucrats to an unending series of summits in Vienna and Kyoto and other posh spots around the world. The ITER design was frozen in an early Eighties (pre-ST, pre-high-temperature superconductor) gargantuan concept; the program proceeded at a snail’s pace, with no consensus reached for two decades on where to even put the machine. As of this writing, the machine is still not built. If it proceeds according to the current schedule, it will not be turned on until 2025 — and will not attempt to achieve ignition until 2035.

ITER is a tokamak — a device that uses a doughnut-shaped magnetic field to try to confine a diffuse super-hot ionized gas, or plasma, in a steady-state basis. In contrast to this, the Livermore Lab NIF is an inertial-confinement system that blasts a pellet of fusion fuel with hundreds of high-energy lasers, hitting it from all sides to compress it to ultra-dense and ultra-hot conditions for the briefest instant of time. During this period, the pellet will ignite and explode like a miniature hydrogen bomb. It is thus a very useful tool for exploring H-bomb physics, which is really why it was built. Construction of NIF began in 1997 and was completed in 2009. The device finally achieved fusion ignition this month. Yet notwithstanding this significant accomplishment, the incredibly complex football-stadium-sized NIF bears no resemblance to a practical fusion-power plant and offers no remotely realistic path toward one.

Turrell views these big science bogs as the royal road to fusion power, discounting much more promising and fast-moving private efforts, such as the British Tokamak Energy (which is building a high-temperature superconductor ST), the Canadian General Fusion, the Australian HB11, and the American Commonwealth Fusion Systems, Tri Alpha Energy, Helion Energy, EMCC, CT Fusion, Lawrenceville Plasma Physics, Helicity Space, Lockheed Martin, and others. What Krakowski could see in the future in 1985, Turrell cannot see while it is happening all around him today. Essentially, he misses the barn.

Turrell is also wrong in his reason why we need fusion. According to Turrell, we need fusion in order to stop global warming.

This is just nonsense. First, put aside the issue of whether stopping carbon emissions should be a societal priority: If anyone actually wanted to decarbonize electricity production, they could do so now, using nuclear-fission reactors. The French have already done so. The Malthusian movement — a.k.a., “Greens” — opposes this vigorously, because nuclear power threatens to solve a problem they need to have. As soon as fusion power becomes practical, they will oppose it too, for the exact same reason, as in fact the Sierra Club already does.

No, the reason we need fusion is to destroy the Malthusian belief system, which, in my estimation, is the preeminent threat to human civilization today. If one accepts the idea that resources are limited, then all nations are fundamentally enemies, and the only issue is who is going to kill whom in order to claim what’s available. At bottom, this was the source of the major catastrophes of the 20th century. It could cause far worse in the 21st. This mindset, however, is false. We are not threatened by there being too many people. We are threatened by people who think there are too many people.

Fusion power can save us by utterly refuting the limited-resource thesis. The amount of deuterium fusion fuel present in one gallon of water contains as much energy as that produced by burning 350 gallons of gasoline. That’s all water on earth, fresh or salt. A gallon of water from Mars contains deuterium with the energy content of 2,000 gallons of gasoline. Other planets or asteroids may offer more still. So what we are talking about with fusion is unlimited energy. With enough energy, you can do anything. In the entire history of human civilization we have not used up a single kilogram of iron or aluminum. We have just degraded some matter from more convenient to less convenient forms. With enough energy, we can rearrange it back, recycling it faster and faster from one form to another. We will never run out of anything.

Furthermore, fusion does not simply represent unlimited energy — it is a new kind of energy with which we could do things that we simply can’t do now. With fusion power, for instance, we could create fusion rockets, which could attain speeds up to 10 percent the speed of light, opening our path to the stars.

The fundamental issue is this: Are resources limited or unlimited? If they are limited, then every person is the enemy of every other person, every nation is the enemy of every other nation, every newborn child is a menace, and the key role of government must be to suppress human numbers, activities, and liberties. But if resources are really the unlimited result of human creative activity, then every person is potentially the friend of every other person, every nation can ultimately be the friend of every other nation, every newborn child is a blessing, and the key role of government must be to protect human liberty at all costs.

That’s why we need fusion power, and why it is grand that free enterprise is picking up the challenge.