Over at the Polywell Blog, we have the story of a fusion system that was designed, built…and never turned on.
It seems the DOE funded the idea without being totally sure it would work. John Clarke remembers his boss – the head of the U.S. fusion energy program – saying: “’they are good people at Livermore, they will figure something out.'” The closing of the project marked a major fall in magnetic mirror machines and the rise of the tokamak as the premier fusion reactor idea. This was not inevitable. Many voices, both inside and outside the science community, kept pressing for an alternative idea – in case the tokamak proved unworkable. “All kinds of ideas were bouncing around: solar, ocean, thermal, wind, synfuels. And we had only one for a fusion reactor, the tokamak. What we wanted was a strong design to be number two” said Stephen Dean former director of magnetic confinement at DOE . This implies that at the outset, the funding managers were not sure the tokamak was the only path to fusion. They authorized 372 million dollars to a promising fusion idea without being certain it would work. Today, we could test the Polywells’ viability with just 1/5th of those funds.
So what does this mean for the Polywell? Well for one thing, it means that make no mistake, being cheap may not save it– in fact often, esepcially during budget cutting periods, such as we’re in right now, the cheap projects go first– they don’t have enough of a lobby to be saved. The suggestions for helping the Polywell along via private investment are good, but maybe don’t go far enough. If the US fails to pursue the polywell, then another possibility is seeking foreign investment– or foreign partners. India for example spends over 80 percent of her energy budget important material. Japan is in the process of giving up fission powered reactors, or at least claiming she will.
It is unfortunate, but if the US decides to cut funding, then it might be wise to seek out other regions for investment, however painful it will be to see the US having to buy a reactor design that we pioneered– but did not finish.