Fool Me Once….

When we ask why there isn’t more funding for Polywell, or Dense Focus Fusion or the other concepts we must remember the old joke: Fusion is the power of the future– and always will be!

For that last 60 years, there have been books about fusion, articles, TV specials, many of which tell us that fusion is expected by 1970, or 1980, or 1985…it’s a mirage, always just around the corner, if only we had more money or more funding.  It would be nice to blame this just on traditional fusion scientists, but it’s a danger every advocate, of any new technology faces– the danger of becoming overly optimistic.
And, after better than a half century, the response of many individuals, not Luddites but quite intelligent businessmen and citizens, to a breathless new announcement is… a hearty yawn.  They’ve heard that story before.  They’ve seen the pictures of bigger and better test units.  They have a hearty doubt if fusion will ever be achieved, or if it is, will it be economically viable.
Even many of those interested in alternative energy point out that advances in solar are changing the world as we speak– to them, the question is, “why invest in this, when we have more profitable directions?”  And they have a point– solar powered charges for celphones and tablet computers are revolutionizing the economy of the third world, in a way that big centralized power stations likely wouldn’t.

 

But what does this mean for advocates of Polywell fusion or any other fusion technology?  It means we must accept that we are  energized and enthused, but the rest of the world may not be– and we must understand that they have some fairly good reasons for that.  Falling into the trap of assuming anyone who doesn’t agree with us is stupid and shouldn’t be engaged not only is disrespectful– but it runs the real risk of alienating the uncommitted.

Today, we must face the fact that the Polywell, like other new concepts, has to be effectively marketed to the public.  As a community, we cannot leave this to occasional magazine articles, that more often than not fail to effectively explain it, nor can we expect people who may never even have heard of Polywells to understand and uncritically accept why they should invest money in it.

 

Remember, that the greatest developments in American history have been in part due to engineering, but Ford, and Edison and Steve Jobs were also great salesmen. That’s what the Polywell community has to become.

 

 

Why we have enough money for Polywell and Other Fusion Attempts.

According to Vanity Faire, men and women spend over 17 billion a year on cosmetics. This was in 1986.  In 2008, the yearly cost was over 30 billion.

Note that I’m not picking on women here, this is just the first example that came to mind. You can put cigarettes (over 35 billion for the US alone), or fast food, or any one of a hundred luxuries.

the point is that the common claim as to why we cannot afford working on Polywell doesn’t hold water. We are not “too poor” to do so– the United States is wealthier than almost any other nation in history– compared to the disposable wealth we have, the greatest Roman emperor was a piker.

If you want to move to more government controlled sources of funding, consider that a single B2 costs over 2 billion– far more than would be needed to take the Polywell from test to prototype to production machine.  More importantly, the benefits of a functioning fusion system woudl far outweigh the benefits of a B2 (for one thing, it’d reduce our dependence on sources of energy that demand the use of said B2).

The problem is not money– it has never been money.  The problem is one of allocating money effectively and convincing the people that it is important to do so. In other words, the problem isn’t science– it’s politics and public opinion.

The 372 million dollar paperweight

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.'”[6]   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 [6].  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.