This past weekend I traveled to Washington DC to talk with fusion folks. The place always feels like Vegas to me. It seems like 98% of the jobs in Washington involve constantly speculating on what action our government will take next. Predictions abound. To get something done, it takes alignment from a couple hundred decision-makers spread across the federal bureaucracy. Selling a fusion program into this hot mess has got to be challenging. Except for the few people involved; it is hard for most to appreciate. On that scale, supporters must have a simple message. A message, that answers something that policy-makers already want to hear. Sometimes, fusion is presented as the solution to climate change - and we just need to get ignition to make it work. Sometimes, fusion is sold as a path to energy independence; or military might. I heard a real example of a committee reversing direction, in the middle of a review. First, they were asked: what they could do with more - and then halfway through - were asked for what they could do with less. Broadly, it feels like our government is in a holding pattern. For about 25+ years, fusion has been viewed as a science project. But - there are signs that this might be changing.
Science or Power?
Congress will support science projects. Sure, they funded an international space station. Yes, they funded a particle accelerator. They view fusion as the same kind of project. But if fusion stays as a science project - then it will always be tied down. This may not be obvious right away. But dig deeper and you realize something important. Science projects do not lead to commercial power plants. So, Congress will fund burning plasma research - but not work to lower the plants’ cost. DC will support a new plasma model – but not look at ways to make the machine more practical. This mentality has made lasting damage in the program; it has strangled off the engineering side of fusion. Sadly, it is not only politicians who take this view. Other bodies like the National Academy of Sciences and the Fusion Energy Science Committee repeat the same message. They kind of have to. Any other message would be too difficult to sell. The Academy recently called for 200 million more to do a domestic tokamak program. Astoundingly, they might actually get their money. One policy person told me: "they have a lot of pull - members of Congress will sometimes just do with whatever the National Academy recommends."
Today, there seems to be an undercurrent in Washington. Policy-makers are touring both ITER and TAE Technologies. They come back confused. There is a stark difference in the staffing, culture, time-lines and attitudes. ITER is not supposed to be turned on until 2025 - or later. The plan seems to be fund ITER and wait forever. Meanwhile, TAE already put fusion on the commercial marketplace two years ago. The company continues to set records in runtime and temperatures. This is confusing for policy-makers. The wheels of government seem to be mulling this over. It is slowly dawning on folks: fusion is not a science project but an energy project. If fusion becomes an energy project then the government must treat it radically different. So far, this is still an undercurrent - on the surface nothing has changed. In many ways, nothing will really change until the fusion community does something big (but please guys: no more hoaxes).
US is Already Behind:
If Congress suddenly woke up to fusion power – they might also realize that China is pulling ahead. The Chinese program has mushroomed recently. Developments started in 2011 during their last five year plan. This was the same time that Congress cut funding for last remaining tokamak at MIT. That same year, China started staffing up an INEST office outside Hefei. They now have 500 fresh PhD’s working on fusion and fission innovations. They recently tested the 3D printing of fusion components. Meanwhile, the US program is turning away young people because they do not have the support. I personally have met many people over the years that could not find a position. Publicly, the INEST office is still supporting ITER – but privately they are very much eyeing the advances in mirrors and FRC. Meanwhile a billion dollar, Chinese energy company ENN has started a project to build a FRC based on the Princeton machine. The ground is fertile with ideas that have not been supported by the US government. Some are not American. For example, the gas dynamic trap in Russia recently broke through many of the problems that plagued mirror machines. Despite calls from US experts – the US has no mirror machine operating anywhere in the country. China has also moved into superconducting tokamaks. Today, Chinas' EAST is a top notch superconducting tokamak. The US has no such machine.
There is raw frustration over this in the fusion community. That anger cuts across all approaches. Everyone in this field agrees: policy-makers simple do not get how important this work is.
Over the summer of 2018, MIT announced that it had raised 50 million dollars in private investment. They formed a company, Commonwealth Fusion Systems. The group is going after a commercial, superconducting, tokamak. This is in response to the frustration with fusion funding in the US. It also signaled something to DC. They have started to notice the fusion startups. Since then, Dennis Whyte, head of the plasma fusion science center, has been talking to anyone and everyone. Dr. Whyte is trying to seize the narrative, and he has a compelling pitch to make. The tokamak is the most well studied approach in all of fusion – and they want to combine it with the huge advancements made in superconductors. It is worth pointing out what superconductors mean for fusion. One startup in Colorado saw their performance increase by ~100 fold in field strength and a ~1,000,000 fold in run time due to BSCCO superconductors. That is not even the best wire available. Moreover, the magnetic pressure should drive the fusion rates, exponentially. It is an holy #%$! improvement. Superconductors are so damn exciting; that almost everyone in fusion should be seriously looking at them.
A Fusion Ecosystem:
Tokamaks are far from the only approach in fusion; and CFS is far from being the only company. So far, they have been one of the few groups privileged enough to garner a 50 million dollar investment. But, if investors dig a little deeper they will find a wealth of good ideas. Good ideas that our government has utterly failed to support. Examples abound. These groups have a wide variety of technology - from established to crazy - so investor beware. Some companies have found their new home in the Fusion Industry Association. This was started as an umbrella group for these little start-ups.
So what are we to make of fusion? Is it a science project or is it a power project? Washington is certain still viewing it as a research program. Congress will probably continue to do so until the fusion community has some breakthrough; a tipping point. The danger is that the administration will react badly to these changes. If Congress cuts funding for fusion as a science project - there is no guarantee that money will then go to fusion as a power project. Really, fusion funding does not need to be so complicated. What we need is very simple. We need an idea pipeline. We need something similar to what is used in biotech. Fund 20 ideas at 5 million a year, 10 ideas at 10 million and small handful (aka ITER) with the big budgets. Force groups to move up or down the ladder as they move closer to the power plant. That means using cost, runtime and Q as meter sticks to measure everyone by. This is not complicated, folks.