Fusion: The next big thing

commonweathmagazine.org SUMMER 2016 Edward M. Murphy

A Q&A with a remarkably optimistic Dennis Whyte from MIT

GREATER BOSTON IS on a roll, propelled by innovation. The US Chamber of Commerce recently named the region number one in the nation for “fostering entrepreneurial growth and innovation.” Our universities, medical institutions, research labs, and venture capitalists have combined to develop enterprises on the spearhead of biotech and high technology, producing whole industries that barely existed two decades ago. There is a lot of runway ahead in these new fields but it is worth asking, in an economy largely dependent on continuous innovation, what is The Next Big Thing? The answer to that question may lie in an undistinguished, recycled industrial building not far from Kendall Square.

There, working in MIT’s Plasma Science and Fusion Center, a group of physicists, engineers, and graduate students routinely turn on their favorite device, called a tokamak, and achieve temperatures approaching 100 million degrees Celsius, which is many times the temperature at the center of the sun. The physicists’ improving ability to achieve and contain such temperatures is generating optimism that science is getting much closer to an elusive goal: generating significant amounts of electric power through the use of fusion.

The interior of MIT’s experimental fusion device, called a tokamak, capable of producing high magnetic fields to contain a plasma approaching 100 million degrees Celsius.

Fusion occurs when two or more atoms collide at very high speed to form a new “fused” nucleus, resulting in the release of significant excess energy. By contrast, fission is the “splitting” of atoms into smaller parts, a process that also releases energy. All existing commercial nuclear plants use fission to create power, but they come with well-documented disadvantages associated with their complex fuels, operational risks, radioactive waste, and security threats.

Electricity generated by fusion would effectively eliminate those disadvantages. The fuel is an abundant and inexpensive form of hydrogen; there is no risk of a meltdown; the byproducts present minimal radiation problems; and there is no material a terrorist could steal for a dirty bomb. Best of all, fusion offers the possibility of replacing a large portion of the world’s fossil fuel consumption with a carbon-free supply of power.

The dream of fusion power has propelled physicists to pursue it for more than half a century. While the basic science was understood, the design, engineering, and materials necessary for a controlled fusion reaction took decades of trial and error to grasp. But the consequences of success are so revolutionary that governments and research institutions around the world have kept at it.

In recent years, the progress in fusion research has generated an increasing level of buzz among those who follow the field. Perhaps the most telling sign of this is the emergence of private companies in a field traditionally dominated by publicly funded research labs. Venture capitalists and prominent billionaires such as Paul Allen and Jeff Bezos have invested in firms dedicated to creating practical fusion energy.

The accelerating knowledge base is also raising questions about whether an expensive international research project in France, which is based on 1990s technology, should continue. The United States is currently providing 9.1 percent of the $20 billion-plus in funding for the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor in southern France that is behind schedule and over budget. Even if the reactor gets built, it’s a research project that will not supply power to the grid. Some analysts think the US funding would be better spent on projects taking advantage of contemporary technology.

In an effort to gauge where things stand in the development of fusion energy, I sought out MIT Professor Dennis Whyte, one of the world’s foremost experts on the topic. Whyte is head of MIT’s Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering and is also Director of the Plasma Science and Fusion Center. We spoke in his office in Cambridge.

EDWARD M. MURPHY: Some people think of fusion as a form of French-Asian cuisine. Is that a useful metaphor for what you do?

DENNIS WHYTE: Up to a point, it is. Fusion is a blending together of different elements to create something new. Our kind of fusion is very spicy. At a hundred million degrees, it might burn your tongue.

MURPHY: There is a perception in some quarters that the reality of fusion power is getting closer. Is that perception accurate?

Dennis Whyte: “The conditions necessary to make fusion power are in hand.”

WHYTE: Yes. In the last few years there has been an increasing realization of the dramatic progress of fusion science. There is a lot of hard work ahead of us but the conditions necessary to make fusion power are in hand. We see clear opportunities on both the technical and science side to accelerate fusion’s development. There are also some invigorating changes in the support of fusion in that the private sector is starting to invest. For a long time, this work relied solely on government support.

MURPHY: What has happened in recent years to create this momentum?

WHYTE: I’d point to three things. First, we have established the scientific credibility of fusion research and this has led to the realization that maybe we have it better in hand than we thought before. Second, the really big one, is the advent of new superconducting technology. Improved superconductors have a lot of implications, but the main one for us is the ability to create magnetic fields of unprecedented strength. Third, improved computational resources, essentially supercomputing, have allowed us to understand the fusion environment better because we can analyze and model the complex energy systems that we are trying to create.

MURPHY: Let’s back up a bit. What is the significance of a strong magnetic field in a fusion reaction?

WHYTE: In fusion, we are duplicating the process that powers the sun by heating up heavy forms of hydrogen to the point where the atoms fuse together and release enormous amounts of energy. We routinely achieve 100 million degrees to create this reaction in what we call a plasma. In order to create net energy from fusion, we have to hold this plasma inside a very strong magnetic field. The more force you can exert with the magnetic field, the more stable it becomes and also the smaller the device becomes.

MURPHY: Have stronger magnetic fields and improved superconductors allowed you to think in new ways about how to develop a practical fusion device?

WHYTE: We’ve done more than think about it. We have actually scoped out a conceptual design of how these new technologies combine together to develop what appears to be a much more attractive product for making fusion energy.

MURPHY: What are the characteristics of your new design?

WHYTE: We call it ARC, an acronym for Affordable, Robust, and Compact. The basic idea was to ask the question: What would be the minimum-size fusion device that would produce significant amounts of net electrical power? The capacity to make the magnetic field much stronger significantly reduced the size of the device compared to what previous studies had shown. We did the engineering calculations and found a surprising result: a rather compact device can make 250 million watts of net electricity.

MURPHY: Can you put 250 million watts in context?

WHYTE: That’s sufficient to power Cambridge. And the fuel is basically free, derived from water. I did the calculation and the yearly cost of fuel per resident of Cambridge is around 20 cents.

MURPHY: You said the ARC device is designed to be compact. How big is it compared to conventional power plants?

WHYTE: The plasma, where the fusion occurs, has an outside diameter of about 26 feet. The entire device, which will include the “blanket” that surrounds the plasma to capture the fusion energy and make electricity plus the magnetic coils, has an outside diameter of about 40 feet. To be more parochial, the device easily fits under the dome at MIT.

MURPHY: So a small fusion plant could power Cambridge inexpensively?

WHYTE: There’s more. Fusion is complicated but, when you make it work economically, it’s the home run for energy. You don’t have any carbon emissions. It’s intrinsically safe and it produces continuous power. It’s not intermittent, which is the challenge with renewables.

MURPHY: It hasn’t actually happened yet. How could fusion power become a real energy source?

WHYTE: I have no doubt that we can make fusion energy. The harder path in front of us is making it commercially and economically competitive. Fusion is just more complex than other energy sources. There are going to be hits and misses. It seems to me to be a ripe opportunity for a new kind of partnership between the public and private sector to move things forward.

MURPHY: Do we need to have a Manhattan Project or an Apollo Project to make this happen?

WHYTE: I’m not convinced of that actually. More resources are essential but what we need is a scaled and evolving pathway towards fusion energy. The Human Genome Project is a good example of the kind of process needed—public and private with a wide variety of approaches. At the beginning of the Human Genome Project 25 years ago, I don’t think anyone could have conceived that you would have small private companies doing sequencing of your DNA when you mail it in. We can accelerate the development of fusion by trying out many smaller different kinds of configurations to find out which ones work best. We need to throw some cold water on the long, slow R&D projects. We’re recognizing that it’s time for the technology development and innovation cycles that come from the private sector. We need rapid innovation cycles that fail or succeed quickly. There will be spinoff benefits that we can’t imagine yet. By the way, Massachusetts has a chance to be at the forefront of this because we have the right combination of ideas and capabilities to lead the way.

MURPHY: What is a realistic timeframe for getting fusion power into the energy grid?

WHYTE: That’s the classic question. I’ll start with the joke: Fusion is the perfect energy source that’s 30 years away and will always be 30 years away. I hate that joke. I want to eliminate that joke from the English language. The conditions necessary to make fusion energy have been known since the 1950s and those have not changed because they are based on the fundamental laws of nature. It’s very complex but I think the technology that exists now, while it’s no guarantee of success, will let us accelerate the development cycle so that it’s much faster. I see a pathway that would make fusion energy in under 15 years.

MURPHY: Actually on the grid?

WHYTE: On the grid, what I’d call a fusion pilot plant. A demonstration that you could make electricity. I think it’s really important that we hold ourselves to an aggressive timeline and meet it using these new technologies.

MURPHY: There are amazing implications if that can happen.

WHYTE: Yes, 85 percent of our energy now comes from burning fossil fuels and there is very serious science saying that you cannot keep doing that. Renewables have some attractive features but the idea of trying to replace 85 percent with renewables presents risks which are probably not acceptable. It’s not even clear if it’s technically possible at this point. Fusion is the ultimate choice. The problem is it can’t take forever because, by the numbers that are coming out, we need to start deploying it in the next 20 years. That’s why I really believe it’s worth a crack to see if we can get there in 15. If we create the perfect system 50 or 100 years from now, it could be just too late. That’s the urgency of this.

Edward M. Murphy worked in state government from 1979-1995, serving as commissioner of the Department of Youth Services, commissioner of the Department of Mental Health, and executive director of the Health and Educational Facilities Authority. He recently retired as CEO and chairman of one of the country’s largest providers of services to people with disabilities.