Does fusion research lack diversity?

Those with just a passing acquaintance with fusion energy can be forgiven for thinking it is a two horse race: either magnetic fusion or inertial fusion will one day get the formula right and achieve breakeven or ignition and the path to power generation will be clear. For most of the 10 years I’ve spent writing about fusion for Science magazine and other publications – and writing a book about the topic – those parallel tracks have been the focus.

Government-funded fusion researchers understandably concentrate on the technology that works the best. But the monoculture we have today, with ITER being the focus of much of the world’s fusion effort, has its downsides. From the point of view of the public and politicians, not much has happened in fusion since 1997, when JET made its record-setting DT shots, and not much is likely to happen at ITER for another decade. This lack of eye-catching results makes it hard to keep funders and fans interested – compare fusion with the constant stream of discoveries made in astronomy and particle physics, for example.

The high cost of ITER has put a strain on fusion programs everywhere. In the U.S., politicians cannot understand why they are continuously pouring ever-increasing sums of money into a project that is being (rather badly) managed overseas, beyond their control. As a result, they keep funding low so that the U.S. can neither maintain its commitments to ITER nor keep a vibrant research community working at home.

Inertial fusion in the United States is in a similar bind. NIF was built on the back of its utility for nuclear weapons testing, but its cost was so great that other forms of inertial fusion – direct drive, krypton-fluoride lasers, for example – were starved of funding. A 2013 report from the U.S. National Academy of Science argued that, after NIF, the U.S. needed to fund a diverse research program covering lots of different approaches, not back a single horse.

Some alternative approaches do struggle on. Other forms of inertial fusion are still pursued at U.S. government labs but with minimal funding. The world’s two largest spherical tokamaks are both being upgraded and next year will see the inauguration of the world’s most advanced stellarator. While these are all important projects, the field does appear to lack diversity.

Earlier this year I decided to write about some of the private companies that were trying to achieve fusion energy. They all seemed to be run by serious scientists, many of whom once worked in government labs or universities. What they had in common was an impatience with government-funded fusion and its fixation on tokamaks and lasers. Most of them are working on concepts that were once investigated by publicly funded research, but passed over when results proved unpromising. They’re applying new technology and new thinking to bring these approaches back to life.

Dan Clery

It’s true that these companies tend to make wild claims about what their devices will be able to do, but some have raised millions of dollars from private investors and have devices that show promise. Even large corporations are getting involved: U.S. defence firm Lockheed Martin announced in October that it was working on a compact fusion reactor.

The articles I wrote about these private fusion efforts have got the biggest reaction from readers of almost anything else I’ve written. Their tales of hardship, setbacks and breakthroughs appealed to people. Which led me to think, perhaps it is time for mainstream fusion scientists to embrace these alternative efforts. Both sides could gain. The energy and initiative of the private companies could give fusion a much needed shot in the arm, and for them to take the next step towards viability they will need much more money, and could use support rather than disdain. Perhaps in fusion, as in biology, diversity will promote health and vitality. And you never know, one of them might actually work.

Daniel Clery is a journalist with Science magazine, the weekly journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. As deputy news editor in the magazine’s Europe office in Cambridge, U.K., Clery covers physics, astronomy and European science policy. He has previously worked for magazines including Physics World and New Scientist and has published articles in the Financial Times, Popular Science, Cosmos, The European and Der Tagesspiegel. In 2013 he published A Piece of the Sun: The Quest for Fusion Energy.