Some of the commenters on my recent fusion related posts have been quite defensive and irritated by my skepticism. They claim that there is a lot of value in the experiments that I have not mentioned. They also have told me that my assertions about the sales efforts by the fusion science backers have been harsh since facilities like the NIF were actually built for other purposes and that little of the cost is really directed at fusion research.
Some of my critics also told me I was ignorant, but at least there is a cure for that. I have been doing a bit of reading, computing and studying so that my analysis of the prospects for fusion can be based on more information.
For an accessible, science based review of the NIF, its proposed experiments and some of the reasons provided by the project leaders that it should be considered a worthwhile investment, I recommend visiting an article in the MIT Technology Review titled The World’s Biggest Laser Powers Up: Now complete, the National Ignition Facility could soon create controlled fusion using lasers. If you go there you can read how the writer interpreted the project justification provided by Edward Moses, the principle associate director for NIF and Photon Science at LLNL.
“This has been a grand challenge for a long time, so hubris is the worst thing,” Moses says. “But we think we see our way through it. When we get a [fusion] burn in 2010 or 2011, we’ll be in a very exciting place. I think the world will wake up to the possibilities.”
Moses is referring chiefly to the possibilities offered by a fusion power plant. Fusion poses no danger of nuclear proliferation, produces little waste, and uses abundant sources of fuel, so it could provide plenty of clean power for many thousands of years. Some say the fuel–hydrogen–is virtually unlimited, although proposed reactors will use tritium, a hydrogen isotope made from lithium, which is scarcer.
The current facility isn’t built to generate electricity. But Moses says that with the right funding (Emphasis added), a power plant using fusion from a system like the one at NIF could be running in a decade.
Of course, you could also find the quote from another skeptic, Ian Hutchinson, who happens to be a professor and head of nuclear science and engineering at MIT. I’ll leave that one for homework and let you answer for yourself if we should be skeptical about the prospects for NIF type fusion and the sales effort that is currently underway to justify increasing the support levels provided.
Hat tip to Geoff Styles at Energy Outlook for providing the link to MIT’s Technology Review article in his thought provoking post titled Perfect Energy.