The Power to Save the World: Fusion, the Unknown Ideal
Schematic view of the sun. Our sun is like most stars and uses fusion to produce vast quantities of energy. Nature doesn’t suffer from an energy crisis.
The Crucial Importance of Energy
Abundant, reliable energy is the basis of almost everything we do in the early 21st century. The cost of energy is the decisive factor for many businesses in determining profitability. Beyond this is the larger fact that energy is the most important issue confronting our civilization. How we obtain energy, at what cost and with what consequences are the crucial questions of our time. Here I discuss the ultimate solution to our energy problems.
Prelude to Forever
The cost and volatility of energy prices profoundly impact the profitability and even the viability of many industries from construction to aviation, tourism, transportation, manufacturing and others. Energy prices are determined by economic, geo-political and environmental factors. According to the U.S. Energy Information Agency the United States will spend over $400 billion importing foreign oil in 2012.
The cost of energy directly and profoundly impacts the lives of everyone. Our 21st century existence is sustained by vast quantities of energy without which we would all be plunged back into the darkness of the 19th century.
Our dependence on foreign oil creates economic hardship, lost opportunities and staggering costs for American consumers and companies. The $400 billion we spend each year importing foreign oil flows, directly and indirectly, into the hands of our adversaries. This is because oil is a fungible commodity widely traded on international markets. We may import our oil from friendly countries while other countries buy their oil from Iran. But Iran profits from its oil regardless of the fact that we never buy oil directly from it.
Our economy and our civilization desperately need a new primary source of energy. Innovation is essential. Many have placed hope in solar and wind power along with other renewable green sources of energy. But picture this: it is 3 o’clock in the morning in a dead calm and New York City requires approximately 3,000 megawatts of power to remain in the 21st century instead of the 19th. Solar and wind are useless.
We need an answer that lasts forever.
Energy Sources that are Fickle, Feckless and Filthy
Solar, wind, geothermal and tidal sources of energy are, by their very nature, mere supplementary sources of power. They cannot easily provide the concentrated source of sustained and reliable energy we require to power cities.
For the past five years the U.S. has experienced a shale gas revolution made possible by new hydraulic fracking technology. Previously inaccessible sources of natural gas are becoming available. And in North Dakota large quantities of oil and gas are being extracted. The International Energy Agency has projected that the U.S. may become the largest producer of oil and gas by 2020. We may even become a net exporter of oil and gas.
These extraordinary developments will produce enormous benefits for our economy without really solving our long term energy problems. There are three reasons why the shale gas revolution won’t save us.
First, shale gas, like oil, is a depletable resource that won’t last forever. Once it’s gone it’s gone forever. Second, the price of oil and gas will continue to be determined by world markets regardless of where they are produced. If prices skyrocket because of political tensions in the Middle East, U.S. consumers and businesses will be hit with higher energy costs. Seven of the past eight recessions were strongly related to oil price shocks. And third, shale gas still contributes to global warming though to a lesser extent than oil and coal.
The Ultimate Answer for All Time: Fusion
The ultimate source of energy stares us in the face each day. It is called fusion and is the means the sun and stars use to produce energy. Fusion is a different kind of nuclear, radically better than its evil twin, fission, currently used in all atomic power plants today. The sun uses fusion to create the energy which solar power merely captures a tiny percentage of. To harness directly the power of fusion we must build our own sun here on earth, and this requires innovation on a vast, complex scale that has never been achieved before in human history.
Current nuclear power plants use fission to split atoms and create energy. Fission produces large quantities of dangerous radioactive waste which is harmful for thousands of years. Even worse, fission power plants can never be turned off because their fuel remains hot and requires continuous cooling. If the cooling systems fail, as they did at the Fukushima plant in Japan in 2011, the fuel overheats causing a catastrophic meltdown and release of radiation into the environment. And the technology used in a fission plant can be applied to making atomic bombs.
Fusion combines hydrogen atoms to produce vast amounts of energy. Fusion doesn’t produce large amounts of dangerous waste because the fuel (deuterium or tritium) used for fusion is not radioactive to the intense degree of fission reactor fuels. Finally, it is extremely easy to extinguish a fusion reaction, again very unlike fission reactions which can get out of control if cooling systems fail.
Fusion will use seawater as fuel to create unlimited energy with no pollution, no energy price volatility, no dangerous radioactive waste, and no risk:
There is a wide range to innovation. At one extreme there is what might be called 'invisible innovation': acts of unplanned, unrecorded, unmeasured and even unconscious creativity and adaptations. This can be disturbing because no one gets direct credit and the benefits accumulate unacknowledged and may even be taken for granted.
And then there is a progressive series of ever larger and more significant innovations, each of which operates at a higher scale than the one before. There are incremental innovations, then big improvements in design or technique, then there are breakthrough technologies, and beyond this there are radical revolutions and completely new ways of doing things.
Finally we reach the opposite extreme of the innovation spectrum: the most fundamental transformations of all that forever alter the potential of human life and civilization. There are only a few examples: the invention of language, the taming of fire, the use of tools, and the development of agriculture. Without question the achievement of fusion power as an energy source will be counted among these fundamental transformations of human life and potential.
Fusion power will derive its fuel from virtually unlimited seawater. A teaspoon of hydrogen fuel will power a great city for months. No pollution will be generated and no more global warming will occur. No long-term radioactive waste will result. No weapon of mass destruction can be created from a fusion power plant. No country, no group of countries and no cartel will ever be able to enrich themselves from fusion power at the expense of the rest of us.
Fusion is not a Band-Aid to get us through a rough patch. It is the ultimate long-term solution to our energy needs once fossil fuels run out. With fusion power we build for the ages, for the millennia to come, for the duration of life itself. This is the reason why fusion power has been a dream pursued by some of the most idealistic scientists and engineers. And this is why the advanced countries of the world have invested approximately $120 billion dollars over the past fifty years in a quest to achieve fusion power.
The Most Difficult Problem of All
Transforming the fusion dream into reality is the hardest applied science problem in history. One clever idea is not good enough. A series of very clever ideas are not good enough. Fusion energy requires nothing less than the most profound and comprehensive series of interconnecting innovations in astonishingly diverse fields such as superconductivity, plasma turbulence, cryogenics, materials science, applied physics, and non-linear mathematics. It has taken three generations of some of the most talented scientists to reach our current state of understanding; much more remains to be done.
One of the most important fusion innovations was the invention of the "tokamak" reactor design resembling a donut. My 2008 graduate school paper which follows this introduction focuses primarily on the tokamak. Experience has shown it to be probably the best way to achieve fusion power. Ironically, the tokamak design was developed by Soviet scientists laboring under harsh conditions with primitive equipment. It was co-invented by Andrei Sakharov in 1951, a Soviet scientist who helped the USSR build its own H-bomb and who was later persecuted for his advocacy of human rights.
The enormous cost and scale of the effort to achieve fusion power means that only the governments of the most advanced countries have been able to participate in this work. However, this has meant that fusion innovation has been hostage to the political vicissitudes of national research budgets. Over a billion dollars was spent developing a prototype fusion reactor in Princeton called TFTR. After only a few years of operation the US cut off funding for this important center of fusion research while Europe and Japan continued their own comparable programs.
A great idea, vital to the future of the world, has remained the ideal of a very small group of scientists who are subordinated to an even smaller group of politicians who control their research budgets. Few politicians think past the next election.
The Future is On Its Way
The next great step in fusion innovation is under construction in Cadarache France at this moment. It is called ITER: International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor. It will be the largest tokamak reactor ever built and is expected to provide crucial new insights that will advance fusion technology to the next stage where actual power-generating reactors can be built. ITER is now the largest international engineering project in history with over 10,000 scientists and engineers constructing a fusion machine at a cost of $20 billion.
2012 photo of ITER project scientists with a scale model of the $20 billion tokamak reactor now under construction in southern France.
After I wrote my 2008 paper the U.S. officially opened the $5 billion National Ignition Facility (NIF) at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. NIF is a different means of achieving fusion using the most powerful lasers ever built to ignite a pellet of hydrogen fuel. NIF is an extremely exciting and hopeful development for fusion.
Inside view of the reaction chamber of the National Ignition Facility, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. 192 of the most powerful lasers ever built are designed to fire simultaneously at a hydrogen fuel pellet the size of a pea in order to initiate a fusion reaction like what the sun and stars do.
Illustration of a hydrogen fuel pellet (called a hohlraum) being blasted by 192 of the most powerful lasers in the world.
The world must now await nature’s verdict on which approach to achieving fusion is best: tokomak, laser inertial confinement or perhaps a third as yet unknown means.
With fusion power we obtain the ultimate solution to our energy problems. We use abundant ocean water as fuel. We eliminate forever the fuel price shocks and high energy costs which harm business and consumers. We end global warming. We use one ultimate resource, the mind, to create another ultimate resource, clean, safe and abundant fusion power for the ages to come.
* * * *
THE RETURN OF PROMETHEUS: FUSION POWER
The Secret War
A vast and invisible war has been waged for over half a century now in obscure labs scattered across the advanced countries of Earth. Every now and then a public announcement of final victory would be prematurely declared to the delight of cynics and skeptics alike, only to fade back into silence soon after.
Although secrecy and territorial claims to proprietary knowledge were given up by the participants long ago, de facto secrecy, sustained by public unawareness and ignorance, persists. The war is the struggle to achieve fusion power as a source of energy for humanity. The invisibility of this war stems from its esoteric nature far removed from the mundane concerns of popular culture. The obscure labs are centers for some of the most advanced scientific research being conducted on Earth.
While this war has been about ideas and science the enemy has been the fickle government sponsors of the participants. More than one victory has been betrayed by a cutoff in research funds and more than one defeat has been caused by a lack of political will. The very worst enemy of all has been a political failure to believe in the future, and act to achieve it.
Final victory will take the form of virtually endless energy, available to all, that will do more to implement real egalitarianism among the peoples of the world than could be imagined by the most ardent utopian.
This secret war began with another war, a cold war with a seemingly ruthless adversary bent on world domination and against whom the United States threw itself into an effort to build the most powerful and destructive weapon imaginable: the hydrogen bomb.
Seven years after the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by fission bombs the US detonated the first H-Bomb at Eniwetok Atoll in November 1952. But the men who designed and built hydrogen bombs dreamed of a better use of their ideas. Their dreams gave birth to subsequent fusion power research.
Fusion is the process of combining lighter elements, such as hydrogen, into heavier elements, resulting in a large release of energy. Fusion is the primary source of energy in nature, and is used by the sun and stars. It is the opposite of fission, which breaks down heavier elements into lighter ones. Nature does not suffer from an energy crisis and there is no physical principle or law that prevents humanity from attempting to emulate her work
Ancient Greek legend spoke of the courageous giant Prometheus, who stole fire from the gods and gave it to humans to liberate them from enslavement to darkness and fear. The time has come for Prometheus to once again give us the gift of fire, this time the ultimate fire which is the greatest source of power in nature.
There are perhaps thirty to fifty years of usable oil left in the world at present. There may be a few decades of natural gas left; less if demand for it rises. There may be two centuries supply of coal at a potentially staggering environmental cost. With great effort and the use of risky breeder reactors there may be a century's supply of uranium and plutonium fuel left for current fission-based nuclear power plants. Time is running out to power our energy hungry civilization.
Eventually, all of these fuels will be depleted. Infants born today will surely see the end of them. Using them imposes significant environment harm stemming from global warming, pollution, and the dangers of attempting to safely store fission-derived radioactive waste for the tens of thousands of years required for it to become harmless. It took nature millions of years to create these fuels which our civilization is likely to exhaust in a few centuries.
There are cleaner sources of renewable energy including biomass, wind, solar and geothermal. Unfortunately, it appears that none of them can provide sufficient concentrated and enduring sources of energy to replace current fossil fuels (1). However, emerging techniques for storing solar power may make it a second choice to any future fusion technology if people can put up with having hundreds of square miles of landscape converted to solar panel use. See:
Only one source of concentrated energy is left - the one that illuminates our days and inspires our evenings. Fusion power plants will derive their fuel from virtually unlimited seawater. A teaspoon of hydrogen fuel will power a great city for months. No pollution will be generated and no more global warming will occur. No long-term radioactive waste will be created. No one country, no group of countries and no cartel will ever be able to enrich themselves from fusion power at the expense of the rest of humanity.
Like sunlight and starlight fusion power belongs to everyone: "Fusion was and is a utopian vision: clean, safe, perpetual energy for mankind derived from the most abundant of fuels...." (2).
Transforming the dream of fusion power into reality is probably the toughest applied science problem in history. One clever idea is not enough. A series of very clever ideas are not enough. Building the first actual fusion power plant will require nothing less than the most profound and comprehensive series of interconnecting innovations in astonishingly diverse fields such as superconductivity, cryogenics, materials science, applied physics, controlling plasma turbulence and using non-linear mathematics to model plasma behavior.
The Burning Question
The fossil fuels that took nature millennia to create are being exhausted in a fraction of that time. These fuels cannot be replaced. Human use of them can be regarded as a type of harvesting. Once gone there will be no more to burn.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, in its most recent 2007 assessment report, has emphatically stated that greenhouse gasses emitted from the burning of fossil fuels are heating up the Earth. Unless significant changes are made soon the risk of catastrophic warming will grow. See:
Two large independent forces, acting simultaneously, are pushing us to turn away from fossil fuels: supplies are running out while time to avoid catastrophe from burning them is also running out. The IPCC report warns that immediate action is imperative, before we run out of fossil fuels to burn, before we run out of time to save our habitat, before we run out of planet, before it is we who are burned.
The Battle for Containment and Lawson's Criterion
The focus of innovation in achieving practical fusion power has centered on the extraordinary difficulty of containing hot plasma. Plasma is a state of ionized gas with immense heat and pressure typically found inside stars including our sun. It is only under these unique conditions of extreme heat and compression that hydrogen atoms can be persuaded to fuse together into helium, releasing enormous energy. Stars use the immense force of gravity to achieve these conditions.
People at present lack control of gravity. Other means had to be found both to create the high temperatures and pressures needed to produce fusion and also to contain the resulting plasma once created. No physical vessel or container could ever hold plasma - it would be vaporized in an instant.
The first important innovation into containing plasma came in 1946 in Great Britain when "George Thomson and Moses Blackman at Imperial College in London registered a patent for a thermonuclear power plant....In essence, the patent outlined a plan for a hot plasma confined by a magnetic field." (3).
The invention of magnetic confinement, which involves the use of the electromagnetic force to hold plasma stable, was a crucial step forward. From this core idea of using magnetic confinement later innovations would lead to the use of the electromagnetic force not only to contain plasma but also to heat it.
Along with the human brain and the center of a black hole, plasma is probably one of the most complex and poorly understood objects in the universe while also one of the most difficult to predict and control: "Plasma behaved with such violence and complexity inside experimental reactors that nearly four decades of work had not been able to decipher the physical laws that governed it." (4).
The famous physicist Richard Feynman "once compared confining plasma inside [a] magnetic field...to "trying to hold Jell-O with rubber bands," says [plasma] experimentalist Darren Garnier of Columbia." (5).
Another important insight which illuminated the landscape upon which all future work in fusion took place was made by the physicist John Lawson in the early 1950's. He found that in order to attain fusion three key variables needed to reach an important threshold. These variables are the plasma density, the time plasma is confined inside a magnetic bottle, and the rate at which energy is lost from that bottle.
This insight, called Lawson's criterion, provided the measuring stick used to determine the success of fusion efforts. Fusion breakeven occurs when the energy expended to produce fusion equals the energy extracted from plasma. Ignition is the highest state and the ultimate goal of fusion research. Once ignited plasma is self-sustaining like the sun and stars. Like a well-stocked fire it keeps on burning and giving off energy as long as it is fed hydrogen fuel. All future work in fusion has centered on satisfying the conditions for plasma temperature, magnetic confinement and length of confinement that Lawson showed were essential.
Public Unawareness and the Communications Gap
In the recent US presidential election there was little or no mention of fusion power as the ultimate solution to our energy problem. The inherent complexity and esoteric nature of fusion research make it inscrutable to much of the public while its necessity and promise languish in obscurity.
Fusion researchers are frustrated that an idea of such importance to the well-being of the world is plunged into such neglect, silence, and obscurity. It is possible that in the context of the energy debate expletives may be used more frequently than the phrase "fusion power." A great idea, vital to the future of the world, has remained the ideal of a very small group of scientists who are subordinated to an even smaller group of politicians who control their research budgets.
But this has happened before.
Once upon a time there was a place called the Library of Alexandria, in Egypt. In the ancient world it was a vast center and repository of learning, innovation, culture and research. Carl Sagan, in his book and TV series Cosmos, said that if he had the chance to go back in time but once, this would be the place he would visit: "...this place was once the brain and glory of the greatest city on the planet, the first true research institute in the history of the world....The Alexandrian Library is where we humans first collected, seriously and systematically, the knowledge of the world." (6).
But the Library of Alexandria made what proved to be a fatal mistake:
The vast population of the city [of Alexandria] had not the vaguest notion of the great discoveries taking place within the Library. New findings were not explained or popularized. The research benefited them little. Discoveries in mechanics and steam technology were applied mainly to the perfection of weapons, the encouragement of superstition, the amusement of kings...Science never captured the imagination of the multitude.
Lacking a secure foundation among the people, learning could not endure: "When, at long last, the mob came to burn the library down, there was nobody to stop them." (7).
The great Library of Alexandria was utterly destroyed and its many treasures of classical learning were lost forever. There is a clear danger to having innovation, learning and research take place in isolation from the people.
Scientists can expect to get what they pay for when it comes to having their work funded by government sources. Perhaps the best way for them to pay for their work, besides achieving success, is to inform and educate the public to the best of their ability. This is the duty of knowledge.
Expensive and exclusive research journals written by and for specialists and filled with jargon do not fulfill the obligation to educate the people. Neither do exclusive conferences attended only by insiders. The public cannot be expected to support what it does not understand.
Cutting edge researchers must engage in the most active possible outreach with grade schools, high schools, colleges and the interested public. They must speak to the widest possible audience in the simplest and clearest possible language. Ultimately, innovation is useless if people fail to recognize it, to respect it, and to demand it. In this way modern societies can avoid the tragedy of achieving a scientific vision that exceeds the political will to realize its possibilities.
The Fallacy of the Chronological Approach
A chronological summary of fusion innovation, starting from the early days and continuing to present developments, is based on a fallacy. The fallacy is the fact that the reader of the chronology follows the progression of the story, sees the overall trajectory, can skip forward to the end and can know how things turn out. Life is very different since blood, sweat and tears do not translate well into dry ink on a page. Fusion researchers frequently doubt themselves and their work, and never know for sure if they are on the right path or not until either it is too late or success becomes obvious and gets taken for granted.
I will use the chronological approach to summarize the key milestones of fusion innovation, but I do so reluctantly, in an effort to be concise, and always attempt to convey some of the actual human experience of what fusion researchers went through. Although this is a summary of their work it is also, necessarily, a summary of an important part of their lives.
1920’ s - Early 1940’s: Seeing the Sun for the First Time
Before the 1920’s there was wild speculation as to what powered the sun. In 1920 the British astronomer Arthur Eddington was the first person to correctly state that fusion was the mechanism used by the sun and also the first to dream of tapping that energy for peaceful human use. Nine years later two scientists, F.G Houtermans and Robert Atkinson, correctly specified the details of solar fusion. Their paper is traditionally cited as the beginning of fusion research. (8).
Insights into how fusion in the sun worked provided the basis for the construction of the first experimental fusion machine in 1934 in Cambridge, England. Drawing on ideas from George Gamow (who contributed to the Big Bang theory of the origin of the universe) and British physicist Ernst Rutherford, two other scientists, John Cockcroft and Walton, built a machine that fused hydrogen atoms and released energy. This was the proof of concept that man-made fusion was possible and could, in theory, be used to produce energy. (9).
Schematic view of the sun, showing the outer corona and the inner layers where hydrogen is fused to create helium and vast quantities of energy.
Nature’s recipe for creating cheap, abundant and lasting energy is simple:
H + H = He + Energy
The English translation is also simple: Fuse two hydrogen atoms together and you will get helium and a great deal of energy. This is where sunshine and starlight come from; this is the energy of the universe.
World War II and the Bomb Builders
Albert Einstein’s famous 1939 letter to President Roosevelt, warning him of the vast destructive potential of a new type of weapon, an atomic bomb, is typically cited as one of the key forces that accelerated nuclear research in the US.
The innovations required to build a fission-based bomb led to a deeper understanding of nuclear forces, and this, in turn, led to the idea of harnessing fusion to provide a source of energy. The same people who learned how to harness the atom to destroy cities with a single bomb were uniquely qualified to pursue fusion research: “The scientists who turned to controlled fusion research in the United States, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union were the same men who, during World War II, had channeled their intellectual skills into the building of nuclear weapons.” (10).
Not all of the scientists who helped create atomic bombs were happy with their work. Some (Robert Oppenheimer) were appalled and frightened at what they had brought forth; others (Hans Bethe) looked for personal redemption by pursuing ideas that would help humanity and not destroy it; still others (Edward Teller) were intrigued by the technical challenges of nuclear research and were equally happy to design bombs and to dream of fusion power; and still others (Andrei Sakharov) came to regret their weapons work and later committed themselves to a brave and lonely defiance of tyranny in their own country, at great personal cost.
1950: The Invention of the Tokamak Reactor Design
In 1950 a young Soviet scientist, Andrei Sakharov, was employed as a nuclear weapons researcher at the Kurchatov Institute in Moscow. Because of the knowledge he acquired from designing atomic weapons Sakharov, like many other fusion researchers, was able to make the leap into thinking about fusion energy.
Collaborating with Senior Academician Igor Tamm on their (very limited) free time, Sakharov worked out the physics of fusion power and then, with help from Tamm, designed “...an actual power-generating fusion machine.” (11). This work was unsolicited, unapproved and, perhaps, unwanted. Sakharov and Tamm called the machine a toroidal magnetic chamber - the Russian acronym for this is “tokamak.” On New Years Eve 1950 Sakharov took a chance and showed the design to Igor Kurchatov, the head of the Institute.
Kurchatov was uncertain at first how to respond to this new idea. But his deputy, I.N. Golovin, was enthusiastic:
Sakharov has alerted us to solve...a far-reaching problem of the twentieth century - how to produce inexhaustible energy by burning ocean water! That’s a problem man could give his whole life to solve!” (12).
Kurchatov was inspired and became enthusiastic himself:
A huge operation will have to be initiated...A problem for peace! Huge! Fascinating! We’ll start the new year not with a weapon but with the Magnetic Thermonuclear Reactor and do a real job on it. (13)
Here then is one way of pushing forward unsolicited and unauthorized innovations devised during free time while employed at a top secret nuclear weapons lab: Come up with a really great idea, wait until after the New Year’s Eve party is (presumably) over, and then tell the boss about it and take your chances.
1950’s: Secrecy, “Sloyka” and Sputnik
With the emergence of cold war rivalry and suspicion between the west and the USSR, fusion research was classified by all sides and little information was exchanged. Even between members of the same side, such as the US and England, little information was shared.
But the laws of nature are the same and transcend national borders. Nature speaks with one voice to all who choose to listen. Thus, it is not surprising that when the veil of secrecy was lifted years later it was discovered that fusion researchers on all sides had independently duplicated one another’s work. Ideas for building fusion reactors shared common design features imposed by the necessity of magnetic confinement, Lawson’s Criterion, the availability of materials, techniques and other commonalities. No spying was needed to produce these eerily similar results.
In early 1950 the USSR detonated its own first fission bomb, sending political and cultural shockwaves into the west. The cold war climate of fear and mistrust intensified. One immediate consequence in the US occurred when “President Truman ordered that the Super [the US hydrogen bomb project] be developed as quickly as possible.” (14). The US fusion energy research program, overseen at that time by Admiral Lewis Strauss, was also intensified. Fear and cold war competition were heating up the fusion innovation game.
In 1952 the core of the US fusion research program was at Princeton under the direction of Lyman Spitzer. His own design for a magnetic confinement fusion machine, called a “Stellarator,” bore many similarities with the tokamak design. It did not use the doughnut shaped design however and its architecture imposed limits to achieving plasma that the tokamak surpassed.
Because of the large initial investment in the Stellarator and the assembly of local resources and staff, Princeton becomes the de facto center of US fusion research over the coming decades. Here is an example of “agglomeration economies.“ (15). The greatest problem faced by Spitzer “...was the challenge of observing and measuring what was going on inside...without disturbing the gas and ruining the reaction.” (16).
The 1952 US detonation of the first hydrogen bomb turned up the heat on the USSR and resulted in an intensification of the Soviet hydrogen bomb project and related fusion energy research. Sakharov developed the “sloyka” or layer cake design for the Russian hydrogen bomb. The USSR detonated its own hydrogen bomb in 1953, resulting in a further increase in technological competition between the US and the USSR.
On October 4, 1957 the USSR launched Sputnik, the first artificial satellite. Sputnik demonstrated the successful application of many ideas, including the ability of the USSR to use missiles to attack the US with nuclear weapons. Sputnik seemed to confirm Soviet scientific leadership and resulted in calls for fundamental change in US research programs, and a major increase in research investment, including fusion research. US fusion scientists complained bitterly over the secrecy requirements and demanded open fusion collaboration with all countries, including the USSR.
In 1956, the head of Soviet nuclear research, Igor Kurchatov, visited England and gave a speech where he revealed many details of the Soviet fusion program. American and British scientists were shocked by this openness, and resented the restrictions on collaboration imposed by their own governments.
The world was ready for a new model of fusion collaboration and openness. The veil of secrecy, which had resulted in duplicated effort and wasteful redundancy, was about to fall. A new worldwide fusion community practicing open collaboration was about to be born.
The End of Cold War Secrecy and the 1958 Geneva Conference
In 1958 the US and England declassified all fusion research. In September of 1958 the leading nuclear researchers of that time came together at an historic meeting in Geneva, Switzerland:
The first meeting of the world’s fusion researchers was an exercise in cautiously scripted emancipation...Sponsored by the United Nations, the 1958 Atoms for Peace conference was the largest international gathering ever to focus on the potential for taming nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. (17).
Subsequently, fusion researchers began a tradition of meeting at least annually to exchange key information on their work in sessions the author Robin Herman called the “Plasma Olympics.”
The most important immediate result to emerge from the fall of secrecy was the realization that everyone was, in fact, on the same team after all since nature refuses to respect national boundaries: “What most stunned the ...participants was the uncannily similar course that fusion research had taken in each country, despite the almost complete isolation that had existed until 1956.” (18).
1960’s: Listening to Failure
The British fusion research effort was significant and at this time centered on their ZETA machine at the Harwell nuclear research facility near London. Despite a temporary belief that their machine was achieving fusion, subsequent tests showed otherwise. A crucial failure had occurred arising from the inability to measure plasma temperature.
In the US a new design called the mirror machine was developed at this time by fusion scientist Dick Post. The key idea behind a mirror machine was to restructure magnetic confinement such that the repulsive magnetic force was stronger at the two ends of a pipe-like machine than in the center.
This architecture would tend to concentrate, and safely contain, plasma in the center. In the US the Lawrence Livermore lab built a large mirror machine but obtained inexplicably poor results. Mirror machines of this type just didn’t work. The inventor of this fusion innovation also wrote its obituary: “We thought it would take just one clever idea,” said Dick Post. “We were naive.” (19). Nature was fighting back. Fusion was not easy.
In the US, England and the USSR a modified version of the tokamak called the “pinch” machine was used to try to achieve sustained fusion as measured by the Lawson criterion. Pinch machines also didn’t work well.
None of these new approaches was succeeding. Failure was everywhere: “In the first decade of open research, cleverness seemed to reside more with the plasma than with the scientists trying to overcome its mysterious behavior.” (20). “It was a pretty depressing time” said Dick Post, the inventor of the mirror machine. (21).
The problem with all of these approaches was plasma turbulence. As hydrogen fuel got hot and highly compressed, it became a chaotic and non-linear system. There were no mathematics, no computational resources, and no insight to, respectively, predict, calculate or understand what plasma was doing inside the experimental machines. Machines would reach fusion for a tiny fraction of a second and then the reaction would fizzle out with a flash of light. Fusion researchers were trying to start a fire in a dark room, with unknown materials, and with no prior experience.
Machine after machine failed. One idea after another failed. “People were calculating these wonderful machines and they didn’t work worth a damn.” (22).
The bottom was reached with the “dire predictions of Bohm Diffusion.” (23). Bohm Diffusion was the idea that fusion power could never be achieved because the loss of energy from magnetic confinement would always be greater than the energy created by fusion. Hopelessness now had an equation. But it was wrong. Success, unknown to the researchers crushed by doubt in that dreary time, was just around the corner.
1968: Triumph of the Tokamak
At this time the Soviet fusion program was headed by a hard-hearted empiricist: Lev Artsimovich. Ruthless, harsh on his own people and skeptical of the work of others, he pushed the Sakharov-Tamm tokamak design as far as he could. Tokamaks were dismissed as a primitive Russian contraption: “...the fusion community outside the Soviet Union simply did not think much of it.” (24).
The unique quality of the Tokamak design is that it uses two magnetic fields operating simultaneously and in support of one another to contain, heat, and control fusion plasma. Other designs lacked this feature. Because the technology to measure plasma temperature lagged behind the technology of the machines, the superiority of the Tokamak design was unknown at this time. In the innovation game, one can have a winner and not know it.
By the mid-1960’s Artsimovich “was seeing readings that surpassed the time limits on plasma life predicted by Bohm’s equations.” (25). But the larger fusion community doubted these results, mostly because of the poor quality of instruments available to Artsimovich to accurately measure plasma temperature. But by 1968, Artsimovich was certain. Tokamaks had produced a hotter, denser and more stable plasma. They alone among all the reactor designs were succeeding. He announced the triumph of the Tokamak design at the 1968 Novosibirsk conference of the annual “plasma Olympics.” But the fusion community was still skeptical.
In an unprecedented act of international collaboration, Artsimovich invited a British team to visit his top secret nuclear weapons lab at the Kurchatov Institute in Moscow and install a revolutionary British-designed laser device on the Soviet tokamak in order to verify plasma temperature. The British agreed. (26).
The verification work was finished in August 1969: “According to the British laser scattering device, the electron temperature measurements the Russians had announced in Novosibirsk were correct.” (27). Bohm was wrong. The era of tokamaks had arrived.
Here, then, is another clear path to managing and achieving innovation. Laboring under harsh conditions with primitive equipment, Soviet scientists achieved greater success than the best efforts of better funded researchers in the US and England. Perseverance, and dedication to clear empirical results through trial and error when necessary and insight when possible, is one way to find ideas and designs that work.
While money and resources are essential, sheer hard work counts for a great deal too. A US scientist visiting a Soviet lab was shocked at the conditions under which Soviet scientists worked, and said the following: “It was impressive they were able to make the strides they had, in view of the equipment they were working with.” (28)
1970’s: “Big Science” and Bigger Machines
The success of the tokamak design set off a worldwide scramble to build more of them. Every fusion lab in the US, England, Europe and Japan now wanted its own tokamak. In 1969 researchers at MIT initiated plans to build a small tokamak that would exploit their expertise with magnets (29). Princeton, still the center of US fusion research, quickly abandoned its Stellarator model and began work to convert it into a tokamak: “In just six months the job was completed, and the new Princeton tokamak had duplicated the results of the Russian T-3 [tokamak].” (30) An important principle of science, verifying the validity of experimental results obtained by others, had been satisfied. It would be a different story during the later debacle with “cold fusion.”
The OPEC oil crisis and embargo of 1973 was perhaps the greatest stimulus in history to fusion innovation in the US, Europe and Japan. The US fusion program received greater funding than ever before and plans were made to build bigger machines. Bigger machines are better because an “increase [in] the plasma’s radius by, say, a factor of two” would cause “a fourfold improvement in confinement time. In fusion, bigger was definitely better.” (31).
In the early 1970’s the US began construction of the Princeton Large Torus, a gigantic tokamak that would push fusion research to new limits. And preliminary plans were made for the construction of an even bigger machine that would become available in the early 1980s: the Princeton Tokamak Fusion Test Reactor (“TFTR.”) TFTR would be the first billion dollar fusion machine in history. Big machines produced big science and required big government to build them. In the US an uneasy alliance of scientists and politicians, each with their own differing agendas, collaborated fitfully on these projects.
Europe, in the first working model of active international fusion collaboration on a single project, laid plans to build a Joint European Torus (“JET“) that was later built near London. This was another giant tokamak, similar in scale to TFTR, scheduled to become operational in the early 1980’s. It would be financed and managed by the major scientific nations of Europe, including England, Germany, France and Italy.
While the greatest problem with the US model of fusion innovation centered on obtaining stable long-term research funds, the problem with JET was bickering over where to locate the facility and the division of research funds among the contributing countries. Eventually, it would become clear that the advantages of international collaboration outweighed the disadvantages of this model. By holding innovation hostage to only one political authority, an erratic short-sighted government can destroy by whim or inaction a project that may take years to build up. This lesson would become clearer to all down the road.
1980’s: The Big Three
By the 1980’s Japan had begun to replace the USSR as an important contributor to fusion research. The declining Soviet economy, its costly involvement in Afghanistan, and the Reagan-initiated arms race did much to bleed Russia of resources it might have committed to fusion programs.
At the same time the major nations of Western Europe came together and began to collaborate actively on joint fusion projects, including JET. This had the effect of unifying Europe into a de facto single player in the fusion innovation arena.
Startled by the 1973 oil embargo and recognizing its dangerous dependence on imported oil, Japan committed itself to building its own large tokamak. The Japanese drafted plans for a fusion machine that would cost even more than TFTR. Named the JT-60, the Japanese government conferred upon this long term investment the special protected status of “National project,” which meant that it was “...accorded budgets insulated from annual legislative tampering.” (32).
Japan was able to implement a successful fusion innovation model based on funding from just one government and achieved better results than the identical US model. This difference in outcomes seems to relate primarily to cultural factors and the Japanese use of a "National project" structure. This approach protects high-value long-term research investments from being sabotaged by politicians whose vision of the future does not extend past the next election.
The eyes of the worldwide fusion community were focused on Princeton’s TFTR as it neared completion in 1982.
The construction of TFTR involved extraordinary efforts by the entire scientific and engineering staff. Workers were idealistic and devoted to their jobs, routinely working late nights, and eighty hour weeks. Princeton and the US Department of Energy ("DOE") had publicly announced a Christmas Day deadline for completion of TFTR.
One of the greatest problems faced by TFTR Director Harold Furth was the need to force his staff to not work so hard and make sure they got some sleep. One highly dedicated technician, Bubba Vinson, summarized the view of many of the workers: “After seven years Princeton [TFTR] had grown to be more than a job...this job, he felt, had a patriotic feel to it.” (33).
Herman indicates the state of employee morale at the TFTR project as it neared completion: “Vinson worked thirty-nine hours straight on a balky piece of vital engineering before Jim Sinnis [a supervisor]...told him to get out of the lab and get some sleep.” (34). Time was running out to beat the Christmas deadline for TFTR to become operational.
Director Harold Furth was unhappy, not with his people, but at the incredible technical hurdles that had to be overcome, which Washington politicians failed to appreciate or respect. Wanting to protect his personnel from killing themselves from overwork, he declared a 2 am Christmas Eve deadline. Work would stop at that point. If they couldn’t meet the official Christmas Day deadline so be it. Ironically, this new deadline motivated his people to work even harder.
With only a few hours left to go a new problem came up - an electrical leak had to be identified and fixed. A crowd had gathered in the TFTR control room, including observers from the DOE. The minutes ticked by. Furth went home. Deputy director Don Grove and his assistant Dale Meade had to make a decision:
By that time it was already five minutes to 2 am. Grove said he looked at his deputy, Dale Meade. Meade looked back at Grove. Then Meade casually walked over to the white-faced wall clock and pulled out the plug. (35).
The technicians kept working and fixed the problem. A very large crowd had gathered at this point in the control room. Everything was now ready and a countdown was initiated:
Four, three, two, one. There was silence and then, suddenly, a flash of light on the television screen. That was it. A yell went up from the crowd. (36).
At 3:06 AM on Christmas Eve 1982 (1:55 AM clock time) TFTR became operational and successfully generated its first plasma. Here is yet another way to achieve scientific and technical innovation. When faced with an artificial management deadline to show results, sometimes it's ok to ignore the deadline and keep working on the problem. Some special projects have their own integrity and inner destiny that commands an authority higher than management. As long as this higher authority is united with success, management would do well to go along.
1990’s: Stagnation and Hope
The big three tokamaks at Princeton (TFTR), England (JET) and Japan (the JT-60) were producing astonishing results that crept closer and closer to breakeven. Although plasma instabilities remained, they were increasingly categorized and better understood. A small German fusion machine achieved a higher state of fusion efficiency with less plasma instability called the “high-mode” or h-mode. The Princeton TFTR gave their machine a good cleaning by “baking” the interior, much like a self-cleaning oven. To the surprise of researchers this allowed TFTR to reach the h-mode. (37).
In England JET duplicated and verified these results soon after. Researchers were closer than ever to success: “At last, [plasma] confinement time had entered the range needed for ignition.” (38).
Inside photo of the giant Joint European Torus tokamak reactor.
No new big machines were planned in the US, where the fusion research budget was hit with major cuts. Just as TFTR was reaching ever closer to plasma ignition funding was cut off and a machine with cumulative capital and operating costs in excess of two billion dollars was scrapped. Europe and Japan became the surviving major centers of fusion research. China displayed growing interest in fusion research and began significant new investments.
The ITER Era Begins
The origins of ITER (International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor) can be traced to a 1985 Geneva summit between US President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Michael Gorbachev. (39). The US, Europe and Japan began four way discussions with the USSR to plan an international project that would build a next-generation fusion machine. The goal of ITER was to prove technological feasibility, i.e., that a fusion reactor could be built that would break even with existing technologies while pointing the way to a later demonstration reactor that would actually generate usable power.
Years of wrangling, bickering, disputes and apathy followed. Finally, in 2006, an official ITER authority was created and approved by seven member countries: The US, EU, Japan, South Korea, China, Russia and India. Construction at Cadarache France began in mid-2008 with site preparation and excavation work. Construction is expected to take ten years. See:
The US has pledged to contribute one-sixth of the capital equipment costs of ITER.
The ITER program without question will be the center of fusion innovation for the coming decades. Although smaller university-sponsored fusion programs continue in the US and other advanced countries, ITER and the personnel who participate in it clearly represent the best hope for future success with fusion power.
One country has shown itself to be the least reliable participant in ITER. This country has erratically and without cause delayed or cut off research funds promised to ITER in violation of solemn agreements. This country is the US. At present  it is not clear if the US will honor its ITER commitments. See:
Conclusions: Guidelines for Maximizing Future Effective Fusion Innovation
The experience of seeing various models of fusion innovation and the management successes and failures that have emerged from each suggests the following five key guidelines for promoting future research. These recommendations are based on the evident fact that the current state of fusion innovation appears to be at a favorable region of the “S curve of technology performance“ where a given investment of effort is likely to result in a larger gain in performance. (40).
(1) Cutting edge researchers must do more outreach and have a duty to explain their work to the public in the clearest way.
(2) The vast cost, scale and long term commitments required for effective fusion research mean that only governments of the most advanced countries may participate. To minimize the negative consequences of holding fusion innovation hostage to fickle national research budgets, the ITER model of full international collaboration should be used for the primary tokamak-focused effort.
Further, the use of the highly centralized ITER model, where the most important research will be conducted at one primary location (France), is consistent with the Gassman and von Zedtwitz model for “centralized venture teams” that involve “innovations that are radical...or require the intensive transfer of complex or tacit knowledge.” (41).
This international model disperses power and responsibility among many governments and prevents one erratic government, in a momentary fit of budgetary myopia, from abandoning long-term research commitments in order to raise quick cash.
Research budgets should not be pawned to raise money. Financial stability is essential for fusion research to proceed in an orderly and systematic manner. Research facilities that take years to build and cost billions of dollars of taxpayer money should not be discarded upon a whim. In many ways scientific research is an organic process that is manifested not only in state-of-the art facilities but also in the accumulated knowledge and skills of the people who participate in research.
(3) Fusion innovation must avoid the pitfall of “core rigidities.” (42). While the tokamak is the dominant design, alternate means of achieving fusion should continue to be investigated at the university lab level. Some part of the national research budget of every country engaging in fusion research should be allocated to alternate means of achieving fusion.
(4) The politicians who control the destiny of fusion innovation must avoid fear of cost and fear of failure. When it comes to innovation of the most fundamental kind it would be difficult to name one country or people who were too dedicated to learning, spent too much on research, and failed because they worked too hard trying to build a future that was too good.
(5) In the US fusion innovation should be treated as a critical element of overall national defense strategy. Only by packaging fusion research as part of national defense is it likely to be saved in the long run. Accordingly, the national research budget for fusion innovation should be transferred from the Department of Energy to the Department of Defense. US politicians are least likely to cutoff funding for national defense spending. The US is unlikely to radically change its budget process to create a national projects type structure like Japan - although this would be the very best possible solution.
The Fate of the Easter Islanders
There is a group of islands in the eastern Pacific Ocean that at one time was the center of a thriving and robust culture. This culture had a lively religion the greatest monuments to which are a series of gigantic stone statues that have made Easter Island famous. Most of these extraordinary monoliths weigh 60 - 80 tons each and required enormous ingenuity, dedication, effort and time to build and transport. Today, the statues remain, but the thriving and vibrant society that created them has vanished.
The Easter Islanders appear to have relied exclusively on local wood to power their civilization. They used it for cooking and also to help transport the massive stone statues from quarries to the shrine areas. Despite all their ingenuity, it appears that these people kept doing the same thing in the same way without foreseeing catastrophe. The problem is that there were only so many trees on the Easter Islands, and they were depleted faster than they could regrow.
In Jared Diamond's 2005 book Collapse, he analyzed a series of past societies that failed and vanished, including the Easter Islanders. He rendered this verdict for Easter Island:
The overall picture for Easter is the most extreme example of forest destruction in the Pacific, and among the most extreme in the world: the whole forest gone, and all of its tree species extinct. (43).
The best available archeological evidence suggests that the Easter Islanders failed to innovate. They did not find alternate materials to use in place of wood; they did not invest in regrowing their forests; they did not adapt and adjust to changing conditions; they did not seek out the new ideas needed to sustain their society.
Can societies commit folly? History has answered this question.
Diamond concludes his review of the reasons why Easter Island society collapsed with the following poignant speculation: "I have often asked myself, "What did the Easter Islander who cut down the last palm tree say while he was doing it?"" (44).
The Fate of the United States?
In 1993 the US Congress cancelled the Super Conductor Super Collider project based in Texas. It was cancelled after five years of construction and the expenditure of over $2 billion. This would have been the largest particle accelerator in the world and undoubtedly would have yielded profound new knowledge in many areas of basic physical research. Recently, the European Union has built a smaller version called the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva. Europe will now become the center of physics research for many years. The US Fermilab facility in Illinois will probably become obsolete, and may be scrapped soon.
A daring new innovation strategy was used with the Mirror Fusion Test Facility that took Lawrence Livermore lab eight years to build and cost $372 million: it was cancelled the day it was completed and before it even began operation. It's 1984 opening day ceremony became its funeral. See:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/MFTF accessed 12/12/08 AND (45)
A joint NASA-Lockheed Martin project called the X-33 was designed to replace the US space shuttle and advance space plane technologies to facilitate the commercialization of space-flight. After spending $1.3 billion and on the verge of demonstrating feasibility NASA abruptly cancelled the project in 2001. Limited research funds were one of the contributing factors. See:
Would an earlier generation of Americans have pushed harder, brought these important breakthrough projects to completion despite obstacles and costs, and achieved success despite the many hurdles that stood in their path?
What will happen to US labs as they become increasingly obsolete and surpassed by the achievements of other countries? Will their spare parts be auctioned off for quick cash or will they be converted into museums? Who will turn off the lights on the last day of their operation?
Who will cut down the last tree?
Belief in an Idea
The story of fusion research is filled with grandeur and nobility and illuminated by the professional idealism of the scientists and engineers who have labored so mightily to transform a dream into reality. Perhaps future generations, the beneficiaries of so much effort and achievement, will look back on these individuals and be reminded of the words of Winston Churchill, speaking of the heroism of the British air force during World War II: "Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.” (46).
Spherical Tokamak Fusion Reactor, UKAEA Fusion Association.
(1) McCracken, G., and P. Stott, Fusion, the Energy of the Universe (Burlington: Elsevier Academic Press, 2005) p. 152-154
(2) Herman, R., Fusion, the Search for Endless Energy by Robin Herman (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), p. 4
(3) McCracken and Stott, p. 47
(4) Herman, p. 7
(5) Chandler, D., “MIT Tests Unique Approach to Fusion Power,” MIT Press Release, March 19, 2008
(6) Sagan, C., Cosmos (New York: Ballantine Books, 1985), p. 10-11
(7) Sagan p. 278
(8) Herman p. 38-39
(9) Herman p. 40
(10) Herman p. 42
(11) Herman p. 35
(12) Herman p. 35
(13) Herman p. 36
(14) McCracken & Stott p. 63
(15) Schilling, M., Strategic Management of Technological Innovation (New York: McGraw-Hill/Irwin, 2008) p. 29
(16) Herman p. 28
(17) Herman p. 54
(18) Herman p. 60
(19) Herman p. 70
(20) Herman p. 71
(21) Herman p. 72
(22) Harold Furth, leading US fusion researcher at Princeton, Herman, p. 73
(23) Herman p. 73
(24) Herman p. 82
(25) Herman p. 85
(26) Herman p. 88
(27) Herman p. 96
(28) Herman p. 62
(29) Herman p. 92
(30) Herman p. 97
(31) Herman p. 99
(32) Herman p. 113
(33) Herman p. 139
(34) Herman p. 139
(35) Herman p. 141
(36) Herman p. 141
(37) Herman p. 216-218
(38) McCracken & Stott p. 115
(39) McCracken & Stott p. 125
(40) Schilling p. 47
(41) Schilling p. 265
(42) Schilling p. 118
(43) Diamond, p. 107
(44) Diamond p. 114
(45) Herman p. 208 – 209
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