There is probably no more sorry field of clean energy research than fusion. The quest to harness the power of the sun—without carbon emissions—has long attracted quixotic dreamers, amateur fusioneers and straight hucksters.
But by its own, low standards, fusion research is in a sorry state. The only large, serious, potentially viable project—the multinational International Thermonuclear Experimental Research Reactor (Iter) in France—has been beset by budgeting issues since it was first conceived at a Geneva summit in 1985. Facing another cash crisis, EU member states decided yesterday that they will have to dip into the European Union’s budget—including money usually used to finance other scientific research—to keep the project going.
The southern France-based machine is designed to prove the concept that fusing hydrogen nuclei can be a source of power: so far, fusion has only been achieved by putting far more energy into a system than the fusion itself produces.
At an Agriculture and Fish Council meeting on 12 July, member states agreed to inject an extra 1.4 billion euros to cover a shortfall in building costs in 2012-13. They want the funds to come from a variety of sources within the existing Brussels budget, including from a research budget called the Framework Programme 7. According to nature.com, “The proposal has alarmed scientists, who say that it will rob researchers of vital funds at a time when governments are planning to scale back domestic research budgets in response to the global economic downturn. “I think it’s a small catastrophe in the present situation,” Helga Nowotny, the president of the European Research Council, which funds research across Europe, told nature.com. “It’s bad for European research.”
Although over-budget, Iter’s biggest challenge since its inception has been pork-barrel politics. It is a collaboration between the EU, the US, Russia, Japan, China, India and South Korea. For years, construction was delayed by squabbling over where the facility should be located—and hence which country would benefit most of the massive project. (After a stand-off between Japan and France, Japan blinked.) But the U.S. has always been wishy-washy about the fusion project, with some U.S. scientists saying it won’t work and others saying that it shouldn’t take money away from domestic fusion research programs. The U.S. cut its support drastically in 1996 and then pulled out entirely in 1998. It only rejoined again in early 2003 after plans to scale back the original project and keep costs more manageable.
That hasn’t happened. The original plan was to build the experiment within 10 years for a budget of 5bn euros. Many now expect it to be in the region of 15bn euros. Hence why Europe is having to dip into its research funds–something that may end up being blocked in any case, as the move requires approval of the European parliament.
In his entertaining book on the procession of failed fusion projects, “Sun in a Bottle: The Strange History of Fusion and the Science of Wishful Thinking,” Charles Seife says that Iter, unlike table-top fusion projects, actually holds scientific and industrial promise. Still, excitement that Iter’s fusion might answer our current energy and climate change crisis is yet more wishful thinking. He writes: “If, miraculously, no more instabilities crop up that prevent scientists from bottling their plasma, fusion energy will be within reach. Scientists would then build a demonstration fusion power plant that would begin operations by 2035 or 2040. After five decades of broken promises, lies, delusions and self-deception, it will finally be true. Fusion energy will be thirty years away.”