Fusion power is 30 years away, but not for the reason you think


On the cover of TIME Magazine, they’ve got this stylized sun-looking thing with a very 1950’s kidnapper-note feel, with the headline “FUSION.”  As if they needed to hype the topic more, they added “unlimited energy,” “for everyone,” “forever.”

Wow.  Let’s go out and save the planet, and build a few starships while we’re at it.

The nucleus (pun intended) of the cover piece is that fusion power is coming, inevitably, maybe sooner than we think, and it will solve all our problems, resulting in a Star Trek one-world buy-a-Coke sing-a-long.  As usual, TIME missed the point.

Commercial fusion is at least 30 years away, not because of any technical challenges, but because we live in a world filled with human beings and nations and governments.

Back in February 2013, Charles Chase from the Lockheed-Martin Skunkworks gave a talk in the Solve for X series.  You need to understand: this is like the CIA holding an open house.  It just doesn’t happen.  The Skunkworks gave us the SR-71 Blackbird, the F-117 “stealth fighter” and a whole lot of other stuff that never saw the light of day, but was used to good effect by our government.

In short, the Skunkworks is the ultimate nerd-black-ops shop.  The fact that they even spoke publicly on anything they are working on is remarkable in itself.  Watch the talk below.

I’m fairly certain TIME’s editors and writer Lev Grossman watched this, although they didn’t interview anyone from Lockheed.  What the top-secret engineers at the Skunkworks is working on is nothing short of revolutionary:  a tractor-trailer-sized fusion reactor that can supply 100MW of constant, clean power with a virtually unlimited fuel source.

TIME’s piece featured startup companies like Tri Alpha Energy and General Fusion (mostly Tri Alpha, apparently the only company that would talk to them at length).  Tri Alpha is working on something similar—from a physics and engineering viewpoint—as Lockheed.  Without going deep into the physics (read the TIME article for some light background), most fusion energy projects have focused on a Tokamak design, which resembles an enormous donut filled with plasma and insanely powerful magnetic containment fields.  Tri Alpha and Lockheed turn that design on its head, using other ways to contain and stabilize the hot plasma required to initiate fusion.

Why is that relevant?  Because as long as the world pursued titanic, capital-intensive projects like the ITER (International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor), which use up money faster than power—$20 billion and rising—and take decades to complete, nobody has a thing to worry about.  As Grossman correctly pointed out, the end-product of such elephantine research experiments is more academic papers and more PhDs to write them and pursue ever more grants.

But we’re leaving that phase now with fusion, and we’ve played this tune before, so we know how the song ends.

Let’s roll back the time machine to the 1920’s when nuclear research was conducted in various places in Europe and the United States.  Enrico Fermi had his University of Chicago “pile” where he started the first fission chain reaction.  German, Russian, British, and American scientists collaborated on pure science.  Then in 1939, a Hungarian named Leo Szilard figured out that the physics would make a nifty bomb, and that the Germans might in fact develop one first.  So he lobbied Albert Einstein to get President Roosevelt’s attention—and the rest is history.

After the government started in earnest to develop nuclear technology, the papers and academic sharing dried up faster than a rain puddle in Death Valley.  Everything became classified.  Sure, everybody knew that fission would eventually lead to atomic power (and it did!), but national interests preceded world energy needs.

It’s the same with fusion, or, rather, will be the same.  And this is where TIME had a huge blind spot.

Lockheed’s Skunkworks really only has one customer.  Uncle Sam.  They might profess to be working on clean, green, plentiful power for the world, but it’s going to be used for other things first before you see fusion trailers in Sub-Saharan Africa.  Like what?  How about powering the BAE 32-MJ Laboratory Rail Gun, which launches a hunk of steel at hypersonic velocity to deliver 32 screaming megajoules of butt-clenching destruction?

The problem thus far of deploying tactical rail guns is power.  A 64 MJ railgun would need about 25 megawatts of energy, requiring a ship like the Navy’s Zumwalt-class destroyers to have a 78-megawatt array of turbine generators.  Or one tractor-trailer-sized fusion reactor that can use seawater for fuel.  Take your pick.

You see, if Lockheed succeeds, or if any of them succeed in creating a fusion reactor that’s less than 30 stories high and 600 feet across (in other words, not a Tokamak), it won’t be The Southern Company or Exelon getting the first plant.  Or EDF (France), or Enel (Italy) or E.ON (Germany).  It will be the Department of Defense—specifically DARPA, which will promptly classify all the technology and engineering way before it hits the showroom floor or the trade show circuit.  This is precisely why these small startups, as open-minded and world-changing their narratives are now, remain in the shadows.

What would happen if Tri Alpha got their fusion device working and decided NOT to sell it to Uncle Sam?  Well, let’s say that compelling national interests will win.  Having a small, unlimited, high output power system that needs only plans and time to reverse engineer available on the open market is too attractive a target for foreign powers bent on keeping it for themselves, or using it for their own rail guns or other super weapons (particle beams, high energy lasers from space, that kind of thing).

Not to mention nations which would be willing to buy the technology just to kill it or keep it off the market.  What would happen to Saudi Arabia’s economy if oil-hungry nations were suddenly transformed into surplus-electricity producers, with no need for fossil fuels?  What would happen to the Russian gas industry (it’s already started to happen)?  Do you think people like Vladimir Putin would hesitate to launch some kind of war to prevent that kind of economic catastrophe?  Do you think those resource-rich countries would simply self-absorb into the worldwide Kumbaya chorus?

The first time you see a fusion reactor—a real, honest-to-God operating reactor—in the news will likely be when it’s unveiled in a Zumwalt-class destroyer or its successor, or on some truck-based high-energy anti-missile weapon that our government will develop totally in secret.  And then 30 years later, you’ll see commercial fusion, after the military has exploited it fully, kept it out of the hands of our enemies, and then lost its advantage through leaks and espionage.  You know, the way it happened with nuclear bombs, and GPS, and all our other secrets that we now take for granted.

So, yes, the physics are exciting (although Tri Alpha’s Binderbauer’s statement that the risk will shift from “science” to “engineering” is a bit dramatic), but really the problem of fusion is not one of physics.  We’ve known how to create a fusion reaction for a long time, since the 1950’s.  The problem has been that it took a fission explosion—an atomic bomb—to initiate it.  But once initiated, it would burn for as long as there was fuel.  The main hurdle for fusion power isn’t initiating the reaction, it’s doing it in such a way so the energy produced can be used for something other than making craters in the earth’s surface.  It’s always been an engineering problem, not a “science” problem.

We may in fact have fusion power sooner than we expect.  But we—the public—won’t be seeing it for at least 30 years.  In the end, the old saw is true:  fusion is, and always will be, 30 years away.  At least until we see a weapon powered by it, or another Edward Snowden comes along and lets the cat out of the bag.

(crossposted from sgberman.com)