Fusion: the optimist's choice

4 min read

Features editor Nuclear fusion receives such a small proportion of energy and research spending that an outside observer might conclude that we don’t take it seriously at all. It deserves better.

An article in the Guardian newspaper a few weeks back asked the leading question: would we rather shave 35 minutes off the journey time between London and Birmingham, or have endless non-polluting electricity? It was referring to the projected costs of the High Speed 2 rail line and the estimated cost of developing nuclear fusion to the point where it could supply commercial power: both are around £50billion.

Put like that, it’s a simple choice, isn’t it? Bugger the trains; let’s have a fusion reactor with a Union Flag on it! But of course it isn’t that simple. Look at it this way: £50billion will definitely buy you a railway (or five-eighths of a railway, if you want the trains as well). But it won’t definitely buy you fusion. because fusion isn’t something you can buy. It’s something we have to develop, and the only certainty in R&D is that nothing’s certain. The physicists working on the ITER project to build a magnetic confinement fusion tokamak in southern France are certain that their system will work and say it’s just a matter of engineering: but a matter of engineering which involves the biggest superconducting magnets ever built and a wall that can withstand neutron fluxes and temperatures hotter than the sun doesn’t really deserve the epithet “just”, as our recent Q&A shows.

It’s a bit of a daft question anyway. You might as well ask why Real Madrid bought Gareth Bale when they could have developed fusion for the same money. It’s not as though Cristiano Ronaldo is going to stop scoring goals. Maybe they could build a tokamak under the Bernabéu. It’s not like there isn’t a precendent: Enrico Fermi’s first nuclear reactor was under the football stadium at Chicago University’s football stadium. And it could bring a whole new meaning to ‘midfield powerhouse’.

Joking aside, there is a pertinent question here: given the goal of limitless clean energy, why are we spending so little on fusion? The worldwide fusion budget is less than $1US per person per year. In the UK, we spend 0.05 per cent of our energy budget on it — and we’re one of the leading investors and technology centres, with the world’s current largest tokamak, the Joint European Torus, housed at Culham in Oxfordshire. Anyone looking from outside might conclude that, as a species or a collection of economies, we aren’t really that serious about it. When asked what he’d spend more money on if he were in charge of the country’s research budget, Prof Brian Cox (who, good looks and camera presence aside, is a leading particle physicist, so he knows what he’s talking about) says that we should throw it at fusion.

Mention fusion within the hearing of a bunch of technology-savvy cynics such as Engineer readers (sorry, realists) and you soon run into the old chestnut about fusion being 30 years away, and it’s been 30 years away for the past half-century. And, indeed, the ITER timetable for fusion research does say commercial power is maybe 30 years away: the ITER reactor itself has to be built, and its experimental programme run for some 18-20 years, and if that is successful, then a further tokamak reactor has to be built which is configured to take the heat of the fusion reactor to generate steam and run turbines. But if we’re being optimistic — and as I’ve said before, if engineers can’t be optimistic they might as well just give up — then that 30 years looks a lot more like a timetable than a hopeful projection. If we can make the Large Hadron Collider work, then why not ITER?

Of course, ITER isn’t the only egg in the fusion basket. The US National Ignition Facility is taking strides towards self-sustaining fusion with its laser-powered inertial confinement system (and if that works, then the next step in the programme will be built in the UK) and, intriguingly, Lockheed Martin’s ‘Skunk Works’ announced earlier this year that it is working on a compact magnetic confinement system, believed to be kind of twisted tokamak known as a spheromak or stellarator, which would fit in a standard shipping container and will be ready for scale-up to commercial use by 2020 (although the lead researcher, Charles Chase, says that a full scale reactor wouldn’t be ready before 2050. There’s that 30 years again). But we’re taking that one with a large pinch of salt. Prof Chase, if you’re reading this, I’ll believe it when I see it.

Fusion is surely humanity’s best hope for non-polluting, sustainable energy, alongside some more efficient form of photovoltaics. The laws of physics say that it should be possible; and translating the laws of physics into reality for the good of mankind is one good definition of engineering. It’s something which deserves to be taken much more seriously and needs investment. The goal of such investment wouldn’t necessarily be financial return, it would be the future of civilisation. That’s not something which often shows up on bankers’ balance sheets, but it probably should be; it’s certainly something which, as we can see from the ITER collaboration, is enough to motivate thousands of people from many different countries to work together. Surely it would be less controversial than a high-speed railway? Surely?

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