Monday, 19 December 2011

Fusion gets a bad press - a personal view on the reasons

Why has there been so much negative news about fusion energy this month?  I suppose it is because the EU has finally committed itself to spending some extra funds on the ITER project, and a few people still try to pretend that 1.3 billion Euros is a lot of money.

Is it?  What can you buy for a few billion?

How much did CERN's LHC project cost?  I have heard figures up to 10 billion Euros spent over about 10 years, with most, if not all the funds coming from European countries.  (The LHC itself admits to a figure nearer 3 billion, but I'm sure it depends what you count as LHC and what infrastructure was already there.)  Its a beautiful project and it is sure to produce some beautiful science.  But it is also certainly not going to be part of the solution to the world's energy crisis.

The London Olympics comes with a similar price tag, but this time it is being funded almost entirely by a single country.  For a few weeks of sporting 'fun', (or to me, a few weeks of sheer tedium), the UK tax payers are paying out £10 billion after private investment failed to materialise.  Is that value for money?  No doubt many will claim that it is, and I have to try to respect their opinions.  However, it will also not be part of any solution to the world's energy crisis.

The International Space Station is another $10 billion scale project.  And many people point out what a sheer waste of money that has been!  It has a certain fascination for the inner child, but none of the excitement of earlier manned missions and certainly less value for money than the unmanned space programme.

These three examples - and believe me, there are countless others - show that it is actually a paltry investment when you consider how the ITER project is being funded.  Half the world's population are paying towards it, and the total cost is a mere £1 billion dollars per year.  (I am deliberately changing units of currency as I regard them as broadly equivalent, within the measurement errors that we are dealing with.)

Is it part of the solution to the energy crisis though?

The answer to that is clearly not known with absolute certainty, but I can tell you that it has a much better chance of returning value for money in this endeavour than big science, big space missions or big sport.  I don't consider ITER to be big science in the same sense as CERN.  It is more of a technological challenge where we know what we want the machine to do and just need to find the best way to make the most efficient and reliable machine.  The science that we get from ITER is interesting and relevant, but its main value (to me) is that fusion might finally come to the rescue as the fossil fuels dry up.

I'm not saying 'don't invest in renewables' at the same time.  I'm not even advocating an end to spending on other things.  I'm just saying that the coming energy crisis will affect us all and if you open your eyes to the possible consequences of shortage of energy you will realise that the world as a whole cannot afford not to invest in every possible solution however weird and wacky.  And as weird and wacky goes, ITER is very much towards the sane end of the spectrum.  Fusion already works on a smaller scale and all the indications are that bigger is better, and that ITER is at least nearly big enough.

Given the context of the level of spending on other things around the world the 'gamble' of building ITER is certainly worth it and at least construction is progressing now.  Buildings are starting to appear on the site and large contracts have been placed with industry.

ITER construction site.  More photos from here

Fusion might be thirty years away, and it might always have been 30 years away, but since the last credible device built to take the technology forwards is now over 30 years old I wonder why anyone would expect that to have changed.  Can you think of any other area of technology where a 30 year old device is still 'state of the art'?

Let's just keep in mind that 'the huge price tag' is not huge in the context of the things happening in the 'real world'.

As in everything - context is king!

Small note:  This is the private opinion of an almost irrepressible enthusiast - not representing the views of any official organisation in the fusion community.  Far from it in fact!


Dobbin said...

I guess you're referring to the BBC report last week. I agree it was disappointing - the reporter seemed to have made up his mind that ITER was a waste of money and compiled interviews to fit his agenda. However, now is the worst possible time to have to ask the EU for more funding for the project, so some flak had to be expected, and in fact I'm surprised there hasn't been more. What annoys me is that the BBC, along with the rest of the media, is hopelessly in love with the LHC, which can do no wrong in their eyes (even when it goes kaput). Although there may be secondary benefits from LHC that aid society, ITER as you say has more direct benefit as a big step towards a new clean energy source for the world. Once we've got that sorted we can go back to the Higgs Boson! Stuart Nathan from the Engineer magazine puts it a lot better than I can:

Little Miss Joey said...

I subscribe to what both of you have written. I would take it a step a further though, to say that the media has been largely irresponsible in its reporting of such matters and shouldn't let a "love affair" bias its required impartiality.

Derby Sceptic said...

We know the media are biased, usually by their political masters.

It seems to me that ITER is more useful to the world than the LHC as we know that we have to address energy needs, which ITER is looking at but the knowledge likely to derive from the LHC is far more esoteric and I cannot see it's benefits to any present issues.

Gaining knowledge is great, but without affordable and sustaainable power we won't be able to benefit.

Plasma Engineer said...

Not wishing to court controversy of course, but I think it is a bit unfair to blame the media. Surely good media relations come from partnership with the people who write the stories.

If fusion does not give them new and interesting stories then we can hardly blame them for taking one of the two options left to them:
1/ Ignore fusion, or
2/ Make up interesting stories about fusion