News flash: Nuclear fusion will be ready to generate power for the American grid in 20 years (but I think I’ve heard that before…like maybe 30 years ago)

Those of us in the physics business (and many others) have thought that the science behind the effort to develop practical power generation with nuclear fusion is really nifty – and we’ve been thinking it for decades.

So the claim in this morning’s New York Times that practical power generation with nuclear fusion is only 20 years away (if we make the necessary investment) is familiar:  We’ve been hearing the “20 years away” line for decades.

But that is no reason not to keep trying.  The author of this morning’s op-ed quotes a cost of $30 billion over 20 years.

In fact, it can be argued that this is exactly the sort of science that government should be supporting:  research that is too risky for the private sector but which has a huge upside.

This is a dangerous moment for American basic science.  In the search for trillions of dollars of savings, policy-makers might devour a few billion dollars per year in support for basic research that produces important scientific advances and, more importantly, new generations of scientists.  (Example:  Check the list of jobs that the 120 Ph.D. grads of the FSU experimental nuclear physics program have and you’ll be surprised to see how many are in the private sector doing research and other work that doesn’t look at all like nuclear physics.)

We should all be hoping that our leaders have the sense not to eat the nation’s economic seed corn.

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2 Responses to News flash: Nuclear fusion will be ready to generate power for the American grid in 20 years (but I think I’ve heard that before…like maybe 30 years ago)

  1. Doc Carr says:

    Although the irony of that “20 year” promise probably amuses me even more than it does you, I’d like to track down a 1960 Popular Science or Scientific American mag and see what claim was actually made at the time. After all, the first practical nuclear reactors were just coming on line at that time, but optimism did rule back then.

    Also, don’t overlook the not so minor detail that the author of that editorial is in the plasma fusion business while the US has put its resources into the laser fusion business rather than duplicate the capital investment being made with ITER.

  2. Doc Carr says:

    Actually, I’ve always thought the science and engineering were both exceptionally challenging rather than nifty. That said, this prediction is likely to be more accurate than ones made fifty years ago for several reasons.

    1. The factor of one billion between a Megaflop and a Petaflop computer is significant when it comes to dealing with the hydrodynamics of a plasma. This is as hard, if not harder, than weather forecasting, but Exaflops will be available by the time the next machine is being designed.

    2. The superconductor used in large magnets had just been discovered circa 1960 and was almost 20 years away from use in complicated geometries. The cost of building and operating the magnets is critical to commercial viability of plasma fusion.

    3. The first laser had just been demonstrated circa 1960, and they were mere toys compared to what was needed. IMHO, even the circa 1980 Livermore Shiva laser was a toy compared to what was needed, and it was one heck of a big toy. Like large superconducting magnets, this technology is still maturing but is now close to what is needed.

    4. Nuclear fission scales up more easily because time delays on the order of seconds and even minutes make the process easier to control than fusion, where the time scale is a small fraction of a second.

    5. Experiments showed that many of the physics and engineering ideas were naive at best concerning the challenges posed by either magnetohydrodynamics or absurdly large lasers, and experiment continues to play a major role because of item 4.

    Both physics and engineering are incremental in this challenging area, and data from NIF and ITER will be needed before trying to design a commercial plant. Even then, the answer might be “never” instead of “10 more years”.

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