Often seen as a science ‘stuck in the future’, nuclear fusion is showing signs of becoming a mainstream technology, says author Matthew Moynihan.
Matthew Moynihan is nothing if not a realist. He knows that the technology he champions suffers from what public relations people call reputational issues. And that’s because for several decades nuclear fusion has at best been saddled with the qualifying term ‘tomorrow’s’, while at worst, it’s a fringe distraction often written about in green ink and block capitals.
Even Moynihan’s co-author on ‘Fusion’s Promise’ had his doubts. Alfred B Bortz in his early meetings with Moynihan wondered: “Aren’t fusioneers chasing steadily moving goalposts?” In the preface to their book – wonderfully subtitled ‘How Technology Breakthroughs in Nuclear Fusion Can Conquer Climate Change on Earth (And Carry Humans to Mars, Too)’ – we’re told that Moynihan answered Bortz’s question in the negative, insisting that the technology was within reach. In fact, “fusion is already finding commercial application in other economic sectors”.
While coming from different generations and with differing levels of optimism over how likely fusion was to become a reality, the authors were united in their view that there was a need for economically viable green alternatives to fossil fuels. Bortz – also known stateside as the popular science educator and entertainer Dr Fred – is a former nuclear engineer, having worked on computer modelling of advanced fission reactors for the Westinghouse Electric Corporation with the advantage of being in his second career as a professional writer.
Moynihan contributed his expertise as a ‘fusioneer’ – with a background in fusion-related doctoral work at the University of Rochester – and, critically, his limitless enthusiasm. This latter quality is important, he says, because without it projects don’t get funded, and without funding they don’t get taken seriously. It’s a process of inevitability he describes as a “vicious circle” and a “downward spiral”, and it’s one that leads to both inertia and the reputational crisis already mentioned.
All of which means that ‘Fusion’s Promise’ is a book with a clear mission. Moynihan explains that the aim was for the authors to draw together every scrap of current thinking on the subject and distil it into a project of manageable proportions, to be presented in a way that could be understood by the general reader. Moynihan stresses the importance of the public understanding of technology in this way, comparing today’s attitudes to nuclear fusion with aviation in the early 20th century. This was a time when “achieving powered flight required a steady progress of significant but obscure precursor events” that spanned 200 years and had been catalogued by aviation pioneer Octave Chanute in his book ‘Progress in Flying Machines’. Then came the defining moment in December 1903 when the Wright Brothers made the first powered flight at Kitty Hawk. From the outset, the authors ask rhetorically: “Is Kitty Hawk a moment in fusion’s future? We argue the answer is yes.”
One of the biggest problems facing the fusion community is that “they’ve not done a great job communicating what they do”, says Moynihan, with the scientists “cloistered” and their data locked away in silos. He argues that as we make the transition from fusion being in the academic field to a privately funded start-up space “we have to get this information out to the public. And we have to do it in a way that the public can follow.”
Moynihan accepts that with plasma physics based on “esoteric math-driven academic papers” this could be tricky. “What we’re trying to do with ‘Fusion’s Promise’ is bridge that gap, explaining fusion in pictures for normal people. You can debate how successful we were, but that’s what we tried to do.”
‘With so many shots on goal we’re going to see net power’.
The task facing the authors was not easy, and it’s not helped by the similarity of the words ‘fusion’ and ‘fission’. There’s also a strong sense of fusion being its own worst enemy. If the evolution of fusion energy were a movie, it would be described as having been in ‘development hell’ for six decades with storyboards gathering dust and stakeholders losing interest. Moynihan disputes this, saying that fusion’s “speed, pace and scope of the field has grown significantly” while conceding it is “still in development. We first got fusion in 1958. In 2000 we got the first commercial product. Today we have fusion on the market in commercial places.”
But the challenge, he says, “has always been net power – that’s the thing we haven’t been able to crack”. Even today’s best systems are only outputting one-third of the energy that’s being put into them. “It’s a tough problem to solve and it’s taken a long time to get all the technology in place, to improve our understanding of it, to model the plasma physics.”
Despite the prevailing attitude in the 1980s that fusion was a technology that would never happen in our lifetime, we are now starting to see the ‘promise’ of Moynihan and Bortz’s book title, thanks to a number of convergent factors. Moynihan says that improvements in computing resources have led to whole-system modelling “which means that we can find problems in systems up-front before building anything, which is a lot cheaper. There have also been breakthroughs in the magnet technology, which is a big theme across the entire industry. The new paradigm in our field is to take an existing concept that’s decades old, add a super-powerful superconducting magnet to it, put the two together and you get something that behaves differently, runs longer, performs better and is much closer to net power.” There have also been huge accomplishments in the engineering and physics: “We got ignition last year, and that made international headlines.”
But perhaps the most important element in the changing attitudes towards fusion is that it is becoming attractive to private investment. Moynihan says there is a shift in the fusion market where “we are beginning to see start-ups taking it up. I’m tracking over 30 firms around the world that have taken in over $5.5bn in private investment over the past ten years. There’s a different culture. These aren’t government-backed programmes.”
Moynihan is under no illusions about the reality. “The commercial risk-profile is high and many of these companies will fail. But with so many shots on goal we’re going to see net power from one of these firms.”
‘Fusion’s Promise’ by Matthew Moynihan and Alfred B Bortz, is from Springer, £27.99.
We read it for you
As the world’s population expands and emerging nations increasingly reap the benefits of electrification, we face a serious global problem. With around 80 per cent of global energy produced by burning fossil fuels, we are currently risking dire environmental consequences unless we significantly reduce this consumption in the coming decades.
Because nuclear fusion produces electricity with near-zero carbon dioxide by-product – by using the nuclei in water as its main fuel – there is a growing consensus that we could have a solution to global warming waiting in the wings. As Moynihan and Bortz explain in ‘Fusion’s Promise’, the scientific principles are well understood, but the technology is a long way from being fully realised. Meanwhile, governments, universities and venture capitalists are pumping vast amounts of money into technology solutions that could lead to functioning fusion reactors.
Fusion in our future
Nuclear energy comes in two forms: fission of heavy nuclei and fusion of light ones. Both forms have been exploited in weapon technology. Fission (atomic) bombs ended World War II, and the United States tested the first fusion (hydrogen) bomb in 1952. The Soviet Union followed with its own H-bomb in 1955, creating the ‘balance of power’ that kept the Cold War cold until the Soviet Union’s collapse.
Nuclear technology also has a positive side. Fission has been tamed as a source of energy to create the superheated water or steam that drives the turbines of electric power plants. It now supplies 20 per cent of the electric power in the United States and 10 per cent worldwide. Using fusion in a similar way has proved more difficult, but it offers great promise that seems to be on the verge of being realised.
What could a fusion-powered world look like? First, fusion would transform the electrical generation industry. Fission power plants generate from 500 megawatts to several gigawatts, and fusion plants are projected to be in a similar range, with a smaller minimum capacity of 200 megawatts.
More importantly, fusion power plants would create very low amounts of greenhouse gas and other pollutants, while requiring less land area than fossil fuel plants. (In contrast, wind and solar farms require about 100 times as much land per megawatt.) Unlike fission plants, fusion produces very little radioactive waste, and what it produces is much easier to manage. There would be some emissions associated with construction and operation but very little compared with other equivalent power plants. Overall, a fusion power plant would create a huge amount of energy from a very small footprint.
Edited extract from ‘Fusion’s Promise’ by Matthew Moynihan and Alfred B Bortz, reproduced with permission.
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