Fusion Research is STILL a waste of money.

Friends: A confession: I am @Protons4B, and I am an occasional user of ‘Twitter’ – purely on a recreational basis you understand…

Recently I commented on a ‘pro-Fusion’ post on Twitter pointing out that in fact Fusion Research was really quite a bad idea.

I didn’t realise that the tweeter, Melanie Windridge, was actually a communication consultant for Tokamak Energy a private enterprise fusion research company! Her website can be found here.

Melanie responded with a 5-tweet salvo saying that my sources were out of date and recommending the following links.

  • Link 1: Low Carbon Grids
  • Link 2: System IQ
  • Link 3: Applications of Machine Learning
  • Link 4: Transformative Capabilities
  • Link 5: Physics paper on small TOKAMAKS#1
  • Link 6: Physics paper on small TOKAMAKS#2
  • Link 7: Physics paper on small TOKAMAKS#3

I have now been through these links and managed to compose a response. It’s too long to tweet so I have written it below.

None of the links above addressed the points I made which I found disappointing. So the response appears to be rhetorical rather than genuinely engaging.

Of course I wish Melanie Windridge and her colleagues at Tokamak Energy good fortune in their work, and I would be delighted if they eventually show that my scepticism was misplaced. But if these links are the best that the privately-funded fusion industry can come up with to justify their research, then I feel confirmed in my previous opinions.

=============================================

Melanie Windridge,

Good Afternoon. Regarding the links and papers you sent me, I have listed my general and detailed comments below.

General Comments

None of the articles or papers you sent addressed the fundamental and specific criticisms that I mentioned in my articles (1 & 2). I have summarised these as points A to C below.

A. It is inconceivable that fusion energy will be cheap. In fact, it is likely to be so risky and capital intensive as to be unachievable. Those billions in research could be spent on things that could help with the climate emergency now.

B. All currently-conceived fusion technologies are not sustainable – they will be tritium burners coupled with a separate not-yet-demonstrated plan for breeding tritium.

C. Fusion is not necessary to create a low- or no-carbon grid. We are already well on the way to a grid generating less than 100 g CO2/kWh. Even on the most optimistic assumptions, fusion energy is at least 30 years away from beginning to contribute. Practical alternatives exist now and those billions of pounds of research funds could be spent in ways that will definitely make a difference now.

The links you sent don’t address these points. Based on the links and papers you sent me, your arguments in favour of ongoing Fusion Energy Research seem to group into four categories:

  1. Transformative Enabling Capabilities
  2. ‘New’ Physics
  3. The power of private enterprise.
  4. Grid Analysis

I have included detailed comments below, but these all seem to me to be based on – basically – optimism.

  1. Identifying seven Transforming Enabling Capabilities is really a detailed wish-list: it would indeed be great if these technologies existed. But they don’t.
  2. Similarly, it would be great if fusion scientists had been mistaken for the last half century and fusion turned out be much easier and cheaper than ITER. I had read two of those physics papers previously, and I did not find them convincing then or now.
  3. The parallels with SpaceX are limited. SpaceX have done a great job in moving on a technology which had already worked successfully for 65 years or so. In contrast, 70 or so years of Fusion Research has produced nothing that works!
  4. Finally, the analysis of future grid requirements is fine – indicating that dispatchable carbon-free electricity can be expensive and still make economic sense. This shows that a market opportunity exists. However, the papers you sent do not speak to the question of whether Fusion will ever work! And even if it did, how it would compete when we already have lower risk, cheaper alternatives!

None of these points 1 to 4 address the points A to C above. They all simply assume that energy generation using Fusion can be made practical.

But the biggest problem is that even if it did work – which it doesn’t – it would still be a bad idea. We are in a crisis now, and we need solutions that will transform the energy landscape now. All the technologies to build a grid with close to zero carbon emissions exist now. Fusion is – at best – a distraction.

Detailed Comments

1      Transformative Enabling Capabilities

Perspectives On The FESAC Transformative Enabling Capabilities: Priorities, Plans, And Status by Arnold Lumsdaine et al

I only have the abstract of this paper. This tells me that progress in several areas would be transformational.

Advanced algorithms.

  • I also looked at your other reference on this topic. The gist seems to be that the plasma is so unstable that conventional engineering solutions cannot control it. The hope seems to be that a computer will ‘magically’ be able to control it. I use the word ‘magically’ here because the aim is to use computers to design and control reactors using physics which no human understands. I appreciate the need for this new technology – but please allow me to be sceptical that it will work
  • Why am I sceptical? We are now 70 years into the ‘Fusion Project’ and the basic physics of how to establish and control a ‘fusing’ plasma has not yet been identified in principle, let alone implemented in practice.

High-critical-temperature superconductors.

  • I don’t know the details of your requirements in terms of critical fields, but I am profoundly sceptical about putting these extremely damage-sensitive materials next to a neutron source and expecting the materials to last for 30 years.

Advanced materials and manufacturing.

  • Why am I not surprised to find this here? The materials requirements for a fusion reactor are spectacular in two ways: (a) their extreme technical requirements, and (b) the degree of optimism that these requirements will somehow be met sometime soon.

Fast-flowing liquid metal plasma-facing components.

  • See above.

Novel technologies for tritium fuel cycle control.

  • Fusion Reactors as conceived presently do not use a ‘fuel-cycle’. They burn tritium and then hope to use an adjunct process to breed more, generating radioactive nuclear waste in the process.

In my opinion, these ‘Transformative Technologies’ might indeed be transformative. But then so would an anti-gravity device. These appear to ‘Wish List Technologies’ rather than engineering reality.

2   Physics Research

  • On the power and size of tokamak fusion pilot plants and reactors by A.E. Costley, J. Hugill and P.F. Buxton
  • On the fusion triple product and fusion power gain of tokamak pilot plants and reactors by A.E. Costley
  • On the energy confinement time in spherical tokamaks: implications for the design of pilot plants and fusion reactors by P F Buxton, J W Connor, A E Costley, M P Gryaznevich and S McNamara

I had read the two Open Access papers a while ago and I have perused the abstract of the third paper. My précis is this: 70 years into the Fusion Project there is a hope that there exists a previously unidentified niche in the space of operating parameters in which fusion might conceivably make more sense.

3   SpaceX is not relevant to Fusion Research

The achievements of SpaceX are impressive but I don’t see analogy with the fusion project.

People had been building working rockets for about 65 years before SpaceX started up. Their way of working was unusual in that field. Previously only state actors had previously been involved in rocket launches, and because of that, a great deal of conservatism was built into projects.

SpaceX engineered a new way of operating. They tried new ideas – such as landing and use of multiple redundant engines etc. But how relevant is that experience to the ‘Fusion Project’?

It is true that up until recently, only state actors had been operational in the field of fusion research. But rather than discovering a route to fusion which has already been working for decades, they only discovered a dead end – ITER et al. This is in stark contrast to the situation in rocket science.

Even at the start, SpaceX had solid engineering ideas and they founded themselves in Southern California which has a population of the world’s best aeronautical engineers who could implement them. The small fusion companies don’t have this engineering pathway – they are explorers rather than navigators. The transformational technologies you identified in Section 2 are things beyond their control which would – if they worked – help.  

So I think the analogy with SpaceX is not appropriate.

4   Grid Analysis

The gist of these papers is that if fusion energy worked, and the colossal capital and risk requirements could be met, then there might be a market.

Personally I disagree. But none of these papers speak to the question of whether it will work, or address the question of whether the colossal capital and risk requirements could be met.

Paper 1: The Role of Firm Low-Carbon Electricity Resources in Deep Decarbonization of Power Generation Nestor A. Sepulveda, Jesse D. Jenkins, Fernando J. de Sisternes, Richard K. Lester

These authors reasonably conclude, that as we approach a zero carbon grid, the average cost of dispatchable electricity generation rises as CO2 emissions approach zero. From a fusion perspective this might seem to give a market opening through which the impossibly high costs of fusion energy might be justified. However, I have three objections.

  • Fusion energy will not be ready even in 2050 when this would be required at scale.
  • Conventional Fission could probably perform this role adequately. It is certainly demonstrably possible.
  • Even burning gas with carbon capture would be achievable at lower cost than fusion and is MUCH closer to being feasible.

Web Page: Electrification and Decarbonisation: the Role of Fusion in Achieving a Zero-carbon Power Grid By SYSTEMIQ 12th July 2019

This is really just a piece of self publicity. Their conclusions are

Concluding, we make the case that, in the next two decades, there will be a large global market for baseload clean power to complement variable renewables if we are to mitigate the impact of climate change, by large segments of the economy to clean electricity. Fusion has the potential to be significantly cheaper than other clean baseload options [My emphasis] and should therefore be considered by policy-makers and investors as a climate change mitigation accelerator, to be pursued together with the continued deployment of all sources of renewable power generation that can bring down emissions in line with achieving a fully decarbonised power system by mid-century.

The assertion that I have highlighted is frankly laughable.

2 Responses to “Fusion Research is STILL a waste of money.”

  1. abc Says:

    “Fusion has the potential to be significantly cheaper than other clean baseload options”

    If I had been a reviewer for that paper, I would have said to the authors: “Give me some numbers to prove it or delete that sentence”.

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