Eric Hand ’97’s “Firing up fusion” hits home; I have worked on fusion since my senior thesis at Forrestal long ago. Technical and scientific challenges are indeed a factor in the long time to develop fusion. But another is the need for a policy that develops fusion energy as an integrated system and fosters competition among fusion approaches.
Realizing a fusion power plant requires connecting pure science, applied science, and engineering together as an integrated system. Understanding fusion plasmas, as done at PPPL, is crucial. But the current policy virtually ignores the other needed technologies. These include neutron-resistant materials and efficiently heating and containing these plasmas. Ultimately it is these technologies that will determine if fusion leads to an attractive power plant, and they need to be developed concurrently.
Stifling competition hampers innovation, slows progress, and increases risk. If fusion has such potential, why pursue just one approach?
One alternative is “inertial confinement,” in which lasers are used to initiate the fusion reactions. The Department of Energy vigorously pursues this to study the physics of nuclear weapons. Energy development is carried out only because of congressional direction. The Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) is leading that program. The key science and technologies are developed in concert by a team from 25 U.S. institutions. Of course, PPPL scientists and engineers are part of that team. Enough progress has been made that it may be possible to demonstrate net fusion power much sooner than originally thought. But an investment in this approach requires a change in policy.
Many talented scientists are dedicated to harnessing fusion energy. We can make it happen. But we need a policy that enables us to reach that goal. I am cautiously optimistic that the new administration may be headed in that direction.