Fusion Confusion

Politics threaten to make a mess of clean energy.

Politics threaten to make a mess of clean energy.

By Steve Robbins


Steve Robbins, Desktop EngineeringRecently I found an article in Scientific American magazine (scientificamerican.com) called “Fusion’s Missing Pieces” by Geoff Brumfiel. I have always been intrigued by fusion as a clean, unlimited energy source. A fusion reactor that can deliver more energy than it takes to power it is a world changing technology. But Geoff’s article was interesting for more than just explaining how researchers are experimenting with fusion.

Clean Energy Gets Messy

In the design engineering world, the word “collaboration” is used all the time. Our editorial team is constantly in communication with companies, large and small, offering methods of collaboration from proprietary software to cloud-based social sites. Collaboration in engineering has become mainstream over the last decade, mainly because of advances in the speed of networks and the Internet, PLM, social networking and cloud computing enabling the sharing of large models and data globally.

Politicians who seem to be making their decisions based on what benefits their countries are running ITER, the internationally funded project that has taken on a lead role in fusion experimentation to produce energy. There is no specific collaboration software for countries and politicians to use, so it’s no wonder this project is moving so slowly and continues to double its costs, and then double them again.

Gyung-Su Lee, the current Chairman of the International Fusion Research Council of the ITER, is quoted as saying in the article “Fusion is seductive. It’s like people searching for ways to make gold in the Middle Ages. It’s the holy grail of energy research.” And why wouldn’t it be? Unlimited clean power based on an unlimited fuel supply: water. The ITER is not the only experimental fusion reactor device being used today, but it is the biggest and holds the greatest potential for creating energy and laying the groundwork for future reactors that will provide 10 times the energy needed to power it.

The ITER machine is based on the tokamak concept of magnetic plasma confinement, in which the fusion fuel is contained in a doughnut-shaped vessel. Image courtesy ITER Organization, iter.org.

While unforeseen engineering problems continue to present themselves, my take from what I have learned recently is that the lack of structured communication, no collaboration efforts, and multi-governmental bureaucracy have led to massive problems in a critical experimental technology.

Progress Being Made

There are some breakthroughs in important areas, however. At NI Week I attended a session about the Max-Planck-Institute for Plasmaphysics (IPP) using Labview and multicore computing to control the magnetic field used to confine plasma in a torus in real time. The loop time on the control system was a correction every millisecond. (To view the video go to goo.gl/LOKV0.) But there is a lot of technology that will need to be solved before there is success in creating a reactor that will sustain fusion and create adequate usable energy. We will need new materials and new ways of creating superconductivity. But PLM and collaboration systems already exist.

Politicians Aren’t Engineers

Parts and assemblies for the ITER fusion reactor are coming from seven different countries. If the critical decisions are made for political reasons, time and money are being wasted. Geoff illustrates in his article that India argued with the other members of the ITER on where a pipe should end. Engineers would put the pipe where it logically belonged and best fitted in the design. Building a fusion reactor is extremely complex but the probability of a successful outcome is high.

It might take a lot more years and a lot more money than projected, but one thing is very evident: The engineers should be allowed to design and build the fusion reactors, and politics should be kept out of it. This is too important to fail.

Steve Robbins is the CEO of Level 5 Communications and executive editor of DE. Send comments about this subject to de-editors@digitaleng.news.

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