Microkhan by Brendan I. Koerner

Tokamak Dream

August 12th, 2010 · 6 Comments

As part of Wired‘s latest cover package, I’ve got a short piece up about why, exactly, our dreams of nuclear fusion power have never come to fruition. In a nutshell, the problem is that plasma is really devious—we can get it plenty hot enough to produce fusion, in the style of the Sun and other stars, but we can never quite seem to keep it where we want it. Our only reliable means of doing so is to build bigger and bigger containment facilities, though that strategy has obvious limits. Unless we figure out how to build a Death Star-sized tokamak that can orbit the earth and beam energy to our homes, the bigger-is-better method will only work in the realm of the experimental.

But the question is, are those experiments worth the massive investment they require? In the piece, I mention ITER, the international research center that is set to host the world’s biggest tokamak. To absolutely no one’s surprise, the project is now costing a wee bit more than initially anticipated—the price tag for construction alone is now 15 billion euros and counting. And even in a best-case scenario, ITER won’t be fully operational ’til 2026, at which point it’s goal will be exceedingly modest: the production of 500 megawatts of power for a few minutes.

In other words, there will be no straight shot from a theoretical ITER success to commercialized nuclear fusion. Even the greatest optimists admit that it will take generations for any positive ITER results to lead to energy for the masses. So, is the investment worth it, given the high odds of total failure? The Financial Times says yes:

The question is, can Europe really afford not to pursue one of its most ambitious technological and scientific ventures – even if it ultimately fails? After all, its €6.6bn share of the total construction costs is a small price to pay for a potentially revolutionary solution to resolve the EU’s gaping trade deficit in energy of about €400bn a year.

I’m a bit more skeptical, perhaps because I just spent so much time researching fusion’s legacy of failure. But the real issue here isn’t the odds that we can someday mimic the Sun, but rather how we calculate the value of pursuing a line of scientific inquiry when the hypothetical rewards are decades, even centuries away. It’s not very often that we engage in expensive research that will not benefit those who are alive when the research begins. Such projects are tough political sells, and require a special kind of commitment from the researchers themselves—they know they will probably only be historical footnotes. But just because some research is farsighted doesn’t necessarily make it smart.


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6 Comments so far ↓

  • Jordan

    Fusor systems seem to be getting slightly better results these days. One of the nice things about them is that a lot of experimentation can be done on desktop-scale models, decreasing the initial costs a lot.


    Tokamaks seem to be have been overhyped. It must have taken some seriously convincing people to get the EU to shell out so much cash for the ITER.

  • Bryce

    Here’s a video of the late great Robert Bussard talking about his experience with polywells / fusors – very interesting stuff.


  • M. Simon

    Since Polywell has already been mentioned may I add Tri-Alpha Energy and Focus Fusion?

  • jackal

    I have mixed feelings about ITER, which I’ve been following for the last decade or so — so many delays (they took forever to pick a site), but it always seemed like the power source of the future (thanks sim city!).

    Now that I’m ensconced in the solar world, I do wonder what the opportunity cost of ~$20 billion euros into ITER is relative to other projects. Europe is certainly betting heavily on solar in the Sahara/North Africa with goals to get 10-50% of their power by renewables on a timescale similar to any ITER success. So I wonder whether fusion really will be the power source of the future

    I’d bet on Solar/wind + base load from fission (or perhaps this is where fusion comes in), with a grid that can handle fluctuations and power storage, being Europe’s energy source, over fusion. Maybe by 2100…

    As for the energy deficit, I guess they could bring North Africa into the EU and then it wouldn’t be ‘importing’ the power anymore :)

  • jackal

    @Jordan — I do wonder what the selling point to EuroScience bureaucrats was.. you’d certainly create jobs, and keep knowledge/skills in plasma physics (and engineering) alive. Which is good.. but you could do that for a lot less.

    My guess was always that the earlier Tokamaks were the small-scale ‘proofs of concept’ and this was supposed to be the launching pad to industrial scale applications, hence why they’re willing to go big.

  • Frank Sanders

    Here is a totally new approach to fusion energy. Go and check it out for yourself at grnenergylabs.com. It cannot be any worse than anything else that’s been proposed plus it can be proven or disproven in 5 short years at a cost of millions not billions/trillions
    Frank Sanders
    Green Energy Labs