The threat of climate change has spurred more love from Congress for energy technology, but the love only goes so far.
An energy source that promises to be the cleanest, most compact, most resource-friendly of them all is faced with a reception similar to a toddler getting a savings bond: It could be useful in the future but difficult to understand today and not immediately gratifying.
That source is nuclear fusion. It's something that theoretically would work like the sun and produce mass amounts of carbon-free energy from a constant source. It would need only small amounts of elements found in ocean water and bred from lithium. It's estimated that about 1 kilogram of product would create about the same energy as 13,000 tons of coal.
The obstacle, of course, is making that a reality. Billions of dollars are spent worldwide each year on fusion technologies that scientists have been studying for nearly a century. Still, physicists aren't certain or don't agree on how fusion energy could be produced economically.
Europe, South Korea and Japan are still setting goals and milestones for fusion. They're in an almost constant struggle to secure energy for the long term, directing most of their time and money toward securing oil and gas imports and looking for alternatives to imported coal and conventional nuclear reactors. For its part, the United States has a deep well of energy resources but a ballooning budget deficit, so money spent on fusion research faces the chopping block.
Last week, Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz asked the House Science, Space and Technology Committee to allocate more funding to clean energy programs, including those that fund a few small fusion research projects and millions of dollars to an international fusion project called ITER, thought to be the greatest chance at showing the world that fusion is possible.
Under construction at a facility in France, ITER is behind schedule and toughing out cost overruns, now with a projected cost of more than $14 billion and a completion date of 2027.
That's the other problem: Fusion costs a lot.
Why fund fusion?
For Amitava Bhattacharjee, head of theory at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, the multibillion-dollar ITER is necessary, as are all the other multimillion-dollar fusion experiments happening in the United States and around the world. Bhattacharjee said researchers and engineers studying fusion around the world talk with each other and learn what works and what doesn't. Ultimately, he said, that saves money.
"That is in that nature of things," he said. "To get huge rewards, you need to invest huge."
Bhattacharjee said between the tests and various angles, fusion's best-case scenario is coming online in the next 20 to 25 years. Meanwhile, climate change is affecting the Earth now, leaving many to question why fusion deserves any funding while renewable energy could provide more immediate help.
Technologies like solar, wind and battery storage are already taking off and are often touted by environmental groups as the only way forward. At their rate of adoption and technological advancements, the world could be a lot cleaner by the time nuclear fusion comes along.
Thom Mason, lab director at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, said fusion gets about the right percentage of funding, less than other renewable energy technologies but enough to keep the fusion ball moving forward. Mason calls nuclear a long-term solution, in large part because it could meet the needs of every nation and "is not constrained by a finite resource."
"If you look out beyond the near term," he said, "then there are some longer-term advantages."
DOE has its own wing of nuclear fusion where it's specifically looking at smaller, faster fusion projects than ITER. Under the department's Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, DOE created the Accelerating Low-Cost Plasma Heating and Assembly (ALPHA) program, which helps fund early-stage fusion technology to speed up fusion testing, allow for more progress in less time and create shorter-term fusion solutions.
Eric Rohlfing, ARPA-E's deputy director for technology, said, "What we're really trying to do is put [fusion] on a crash course."
The PLX-Alpha project, a joint project of the Los Alamos National Laboratory and HyperV Technologies Corp., got the largest ALPHA program grant, for $5.9 million. A highly simplified version of what they're doing is to use "plasma guns" to shoot hydrogen plasma into a collapsing, super-hot sphere, then shoot in heavy gases like xenon or argon to collapse around the elements, adding to the pressure. It would create a short burst of energy, then dissipate.
"By sending in streams of plasma, we can fire several shots," said Scott Hsu, leading the project from the Los Alamos side. "In a reactor, you can fire very frequently. Once a second."
Chris Faranetta, HyperV's vice president of business development, said he thinks even if it still takes them 20 years to actually put their cheaper, more compact technology on the grid, it'll be worth it. There will be more people and more remediation needed to help humans survive on an Earth hit hard by global warming, he said.
"How are we going to power the pumps that'll keep Manhattan dry?" he asked. "The reality is we need to be doing everything. We need to be doing ITER; we need to be doing projects like us, small projects. We need to be doing everything. It's just a matter of committing the money to do it."
Sitting in a large, white room at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL), the National Compact Stellarator Experiment, or NCSX, looks like a dismembered cyborg worm. Metallic tunnels lay in segments, covered in tiny chrome tubes with copper-colored magnets lining the inside. Some pieces are covered by semi-translucent plastic sheets, while other portions are out in the open.
Charles Gentile, head of PPPL's Tritium Systems Group, has the key to most rooms at the lab and said after entering one room, "I always like to tell people it's like an Area 51 experiment," laughing as he facetiously added, "Yeah, we found this in the desert."
The university manages the plasma physics lab for DOE. It's the only magnetic-fusion DOE national lab.
Gentile said the 40 magnets dispersed among the hunks of twisty metal cost "well over a $1 million" each. He noted that a supercomputer was used to design the shape while the metal was specifically created for that machine.
In 2008, after shelling out millions of dollars to get the NCSX off the ground, DOE sent out a press release: "Following several internal and external reviews over the past 18 months, it has been concluded that the budget increases, schedule delays and continuing uncertainties of the NCSX construction project necessitate its closure and that PPPL's future as a world-leading center of fusion energy and plasma sciences is more assured by a renewed focus on the successful Spherical Torus confinement concept."
DOE reasoned that it was over the $102 million cost and deadline of July 2009. Instead, the agency wanted PPPL to focus on a different kind of fusion experiment called a tokomak. It would be of greater help to ITER, DOE officials said, calling the international fusion program "the highest priority of the U.S. fusion program."
Hutch Neilson, the NCSX project manager, said that his group had been talking to schools to collaborate on the project when the ax fell.
"Stellarators are still important," he said. "Where there's risk and a lot of uncertainty, you want to pursue approaches in parallel."
PPPL's Bhattacharjee said the risk in financing one approach to fusion research, instead of multiple approaches, is not knowing what further improvements could have been made.
He talked about the "competition of ideas." "That is very healthy for the community, which doesn't feel it yet knowns a final answer on what the final fusion reactor that a company would build would look like," he said. "Therefore, we need these other ideas, these alternate concepts, so that what emerges is something we can build."
This loss of the stellarator project hasn't stopped the Princeton lab from working on and contributing to other stellarators, like the Germany-based Wendelstein 7-X project, Neilson said.
Now, he's the coordinator for the U.S. collaboration with W 7-X, where he said the United States gains a lot of knowledge for relatively low funds. For about $4 million, a fraction of W 7-X's costs during the 19-year building period, they're able to be part of the major fusion project.
As for the tokomak, PPPL is still "working out the bugs" on its $94 million upgrade to the National Spherical Torus Experiment, or the NSTX-U, where researchers can test how new material will affect the plasma.
Magnetic fusion and plasma
Fusion is a process that forces together the nuclei of two hydrogen isotopes under immense heat and pressure, producing both a helium atom and kinetic energy from an expelled neutron.
To make this work, the atoms must be heated and pressurized into plasma, or ionized gas, which makes most of the universe. Some experiments involve heating plasma to temperatures 10 times hotter than the core of the sun and using supermagnets to hold the plasma away from a chamber's walls.
Since every major design thus far is at least partially original, fusion scientists often find out all the little things that can go wrong the hard way. They've also had to find out new ways to do complex things. This can mean handcrafting pieces with a lathe or working with metallurgists to specially design materials. It means picking the most important theories to test and engineering structures for the test's intense environments.
"The technicians are as much a key as the fancy-pants engineers; they are often more practically able to solve problems," said Stefan Gerhardt, head of experimental research operations for the NSTX-U. "So it takes the whole skill set and set of trades here, set of skills to make the thing work."
Hiring these great minds to figure out all the components is a major money-suck. And that's before the cost of the materials, many of which get recycled over and over out of necessity, only reaching the scrap heap when creative minds can't think of another use.
How best to fund fusion
Mike Zarnstorff, deputy director for PPPL's research, said the best way forward for U.S.-based fusion projects is not through lobbying or more federal funds but through the private sector.
"[The United States] does not supply electricity," he said. "There are some exceptions, but by and large, the supply of the electricity, the supply of fuel in general, is done as a private enterprise. And so in the U.S., for fusion to succeed it must go to companies."
Zarnstorff said something like ITER is just too big for these types of funding schemes, but other, smaller-scale activities will have to start attracting the billionaires like Microsoft Corp.'s Bill Gates and Amazon.com's Jeff Bezos for help.
Martin Greenwald, deputy director for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Plasma Science and Fusion Center, agrees.
"You can't say the U.S. has a forward-looking energy program; it's sort of muddled," he said. "And the government is kind of schizophrenic about it. Well, not schizophrenic, but the government is really divided."
He said MIT is already starting to look for private investors because he said it has a technology that could be on the market in 15 to 20 years, and it could make a lot of positive change for the world if it could get the funding fast and without the governmental hoops.
"If you look at what's happening here and nationwide, the fraction of the research paid for by the government is going down, and the fraction funded private is going up," he said.
He said even ITER is a problem. While he's "politely interested" in it, he said it's taking too long to be useful for a world that's moving on without it.
"The funding required for completing ITER is as large as our entire domestic program combined," he said, adding that MIT could build its project at a fraction of the price at less than one-hundredth the size. Greenwald said he looks to private startups like Tri-Alpha Energy Inc., which has already raised more than $150 million through private investors.
Last month at ARPA-E's Energy Innovation Summit, Energy Secretary Moniz cautioned that even if private funding is the final step in developing and commercializing energy technology, it hasn't quite gotten there yet.
"The pre-commercial work, you don't have that many people who are willing to put their money into that investment until they can capture the intellectual property," Moniz said. "I certainly hope and I think we will see in the spirit of the Breakthrough Energy Coalition that [Bill] Gates led ... a continued expansion of the amount of investment going into the whole chain toward deployment and scale-up."
Gates, the co-founder of Microsoft, brought together a group of billionaire business people late last year to help fund energy projects.
Moniz said the recent Paris climate agreement will spur investment in technology. "Certainly for the United States, making those investments now makes a hell of a lot of sense," he said.
Like what you see?
We thought you might.
Request a trial now.