Plasma Physicists and the Search for
their Holy Grail: Nuclear Fusion


Back to Big Ideas

When I was the American Physical Society, Division of Plasma Physics secretary-treasurer, I invited Isaac Asimov to be the after dinner guest speaker at our annual meeting in New York City in 1981.  He showed up early, wandered through the pre-dinner cocktail party  “to pick up the vibes” so he could tailor his talk to our scientific community’s main interest—fusion energy.   

Fusion is the nuclear power source of the sun and stars—an enormous amount of energy is released by the sun when the lightest element, hydrogen, is heated to high temperatures (millions of degrees) forming a special gas called “plasma.”  In this plasma, hydrogen atoms combine or “fuse” to form a heavier atom, helium, and, in the process, some of the hydrogen is converted directly into large amounts of energy.  Fusion fuels are abundant (inexhaustible) and readily available to all nations and, using fusion energy to generate electricity will neither contribute to global warming nor will it create long-lived radioactive waste.  The plasma physics community worldwide is dedicated to realizing the goal of environmentally safe and economical fusion power.  For past and up-to-date fusion progress see  

Asimov’s talk was a masterful  performance, speaking without any prepared notes,  weaving in many of his early technology interests and predictions such as pocket calculators, a few of his famous limericks thrown in for good measure, and finally connecting to our community‘s holy grail, nuclear fusion power.  He concluded with a plea that when we achieved our goal to please stand at the foot of his grave and shout: “Asimov, we made it!,” because, as he said, “I’ll want to know!”  Twenty three years later we still haven’t made it and the goal of fusion energy is, according to U.S. government strategy still 35 years away—a more or less constant future date starting from when controlled thermonuclear fusion research was declassified at the 1958 Atoms For Peace conference in Brussels.  

So why can‘t or don’t we have working fusion energy generating plants sooner?  There are two answers.  First, the fossil fuel lobby wants us to believe there are sufficient oil, gas, and coal reserves for the next hundred years—this has influenced U.S. energy policy, relegating fusion to an alternative energy source of the future.  Second, the technical problems associated with fusion energy development are many and difficult—even a crash development program would take a minimum of 20 years.  More on this below. 

As for the fossil fuel lobby, a recent article by Brendan McNamara (“The Coming Energy Winter” at ), a long time fusion colleague and friend draws attention to a study by The Association for the Study of Peak Oil (ASPO; see ), a 700-strong group of geologists and other scientists, that has closely examined the history of oil discovery and production, on a country by country basis, using every available public domain source of data.  The study shows that oil production has substantially exceeded discovery for about 20 years—the bottom line is that supply cannot keep up with the ever increasing demand and, with all other disturbing factors, oil prices will rise to the predictions of 60-70$ in a decade or sooner.  My travels in the Middle East lead me to believe that the oil producing countries recognize the oil peak has or is occurring.  These same countries will reap the benefits from high oil prices for the next say 10-20 years, but then they will have to develop other income generators.  Further ammunition for the “peaked” oil position is found in two recent books: Out of Gas: The End of the Age of Oil by David Goodstein (W.W. Norton, 2004) and Hubbert’s Peak: The Impending World Oil Shortage” by Kenneth. S. Deffeyes (Princeton University Press, 2003). 

McNamara further mentions that “Exxon and others have estimated that 500 billion USD need to be spent on oil, gas, and renewable energy systems by 2020 to keep pace with global energy demand.  A more realistic estimate to scramble renewables, expensive hydrocarbons, and advanced fission plants into place would be 5 trillion USD.” 

A somewhat more measured statement about what is needed is given by S. Pacala and Robert Socolow, two Princeton University professors, in a recent article in Science Magazine, “Stabilization Wedges: Solving the Climate Problem for the Next 50 Years with Current Technologies” (Science Magazine, August 28, 2004, pp. 968-972).  Here the premise is that using a combination of 15 different energy-saving options ranging from improved fuel economy, substituting natural gas for coal to increased use of nuclear fission, wind, and biofuels to improved agricultural soils management would result in not only meeting the world’s energy needs, but, also in limiting the CO2 atmospheric concentration to manageable levels.  Nuclear fusion is not an option covered by Pacala and Socolow since it cannot be considered a current technology.   The article has its controversy since the odds that all or even a major part of the 15 options will be possible given political and economical ramifications is doubtful at best.   

On to fusion.  A schism has developed among those countries directly involved in developing fusion energy.  Much progress has been made over the past 40 years and fusion scientists and engineers have planned a major experiment aimed at proving scientific and technological feasibility of electricity producing fusion power reactors.  The next large experimental fusion energy device, ITER (international tokamak experimental reactor; the word “tokamak” is Russian for trap or containment vessel) is supposed to be a model of international collaboration; but it is bogged down into site selection fights.  (See “Crunch Time, Again, on Fusion Project,”, June 25, 2004, p. 1885).  Of the major world fusion energy leaders, Western Europe (France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Great Britain) and Russia want France to host the site and the US, Japan and China prefer Japan.  ITER will cost 8-10 billion USD to develop and bring into operation—no single country is able to afford the total cost alone.   Further, the know-how and experience gained over the last 40 years is truly global with some countries leading in materials technology, others in plasma computing and simulation and so forth.  Fusion is and should be a global effort based on its potential contribution to humanity. 

To make matters worse, the U.S. pulled out of the ITER project (the original ITER planning organization with members from all participating countries was actually hosted in San Diego, CA) some years ago due to conflicting U.S. political interests.   Politics and science together at its very worst.  Some background here is helpful.  The U.S. fusion budget in 1977 was about 850 million USD and only 250 million USD in 2003.  Why?  The U.S. political process does not lend itself to supporting such a costly and long range program.  And then there is the fossil fuel lobby.  In the U.S. the DOE fusion program is now touted as a fusion energy science program aimed at exploring many other fusion applications ranging from the understanding of astrophysical phenomena to the processing of semiconductors for use in computers.  Thus, even though the actual number of plasma physicists in the U.S. remains more or less constant, many are now engaged in non-fusion power efforts.   

The U.S. decision, however to re-join ITER is in the right direction and  the 2005 Congressional budget recently passed shows an increase in DOE fusion support for ITER activities.  This is certainly good news, but, the U.S. contribution to the global ITER effort is not enough to buy full partnership in the program.  The U.S. is destined to play a minor role as things now stand. 

According to McNamara, “the cost of an accelerated global Fusion program is minute at around 2 billion USD per year compared with 5 trillion USD, with a tremendous prize in 20 years.  These beginnings of global readjustment will, if handled well, actually be a huge stimulus to the global economy rather than a debilitating cost to society.”   

One of my favorite journalist-economists, Thomas Friedman, agrees in a way.  In his recent New York Times op-ed piece, “Fly me to the Moon” (
12/05/opinion/05friedman.html?oref=login&th ), Friedman argues for a “national science project that would be our generation’s moon shot: a crash science initiative for alternative energy and conservation to make America energy-independent in 10 years.”  Sound like fusion to me.  But, in this same article Friedman reports the 2 percent cut in the NSF 2005 Congressional budget—hardly the way to go about a crash program.   There is some good budget news, though.  The DOE fusion energy program is not being cut: it will remain about the same with some earmarks increasing support for the ITER project.   

So back to the question about when we will be able to tell Asimov we made it.  If there is no further stimulus the canonical answer is and will continue to be 35 years.   Are there other potential inputs/players?  If the oil peak is really true, and it seems to be so, then why don’t the fossil fuel industries start to look at their future options sooner than later?  

A possibility for the oil producing countries then is to take part in this global readjustment (McNamara) by taking an equity position in future energy sources such as fusion—they may be the only countries with the extra cash to invest in such large and costly ventures.  But this assumes that fusion will be aggressively pushed by the countries already invested in the technology infrastructure required and are proceeding towards power producing fusion plants in a 20-30 year time frame.  With extra support from new players this aggressive schedule may be possible. 

In the spirit of McNamara’s paper, maybe we need to experience an energy winter to make the world aware of solutions such as fusion and to force governments to act responsibly.  But, as McNamara states, “It is too late for fusion to help with the coming energy winter but, in the midst of the large efforts required to deploy wind, solar, and stop-gap nuclear fission power, fusion can be brought up for the high summer of our energy future.” 

So, what about the US plasma physicists?  It’s time to “let my people go!”—I believe we need a sustained, concerted, massive effort aimed at ushering in the fusion energy economy.  Then we can all get back to work on fusion.  I personally want to be the one who tells Asimov “we made it.” 

Engineering wag—in my world, fusion is and always will be referred to the energy source of the future.  The science has made great progress, but the engineering stumbling blocks are many.

Back to Big Ideas

Home - About This Site - Contact Us

© Copyright 2005

Hit Counter