Making a Case for Diversified Fusion Funding

Posted by Rezwan on Oct 21, 2010 at 11:42 AM
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It’s been a sad yet hopeful month for fusion.  Sad due to university funding cuts.  Hopeful due to the publication of the “Post-Partisan Power” report.

Fusion spending cuts

Allegedly, 29 out of 40 university fusion programs have been cut.  Per one university student:

No firm information on who was cut but it looks like non-tokamaks took a hit… FRCs at Washington (Princeton too?), a Z-pinch device (vaguely like Eric’s thing) at Washington, a rotating mirror experiment at Maryland, levitated dipole experiment at Columbia and MIT… all cut (done at the end of the month!)

Note:  we need confirmation and links to stories on these cuts - a final official tally.  Unfortunately they aren’t easily itemized in one place.  The programs that did get funding seem to be the following - Congratulations to 11 programs NOT cut:

Columbia (Navratil)... HBT tokamak
Wisconsin (Anderson)... HSX stellarator
UC Davis (Hwang)... CT injection into tokamak
Swarthmore (Brown)...
Wisconsin (Fonck)... Pegasus tokamak
Washington/Wisconsin/Utah State (Jarboe, Sovinec, Held) - PSI Center
Wisconsin (Hegna) - quasi-symmetric stellarators
Auburn (Knowlton)... Compact Auburn Torsatron (stellarator)
Texas (Gentle)... dc helicity injection in a big torus
Washington (Jarboe) - HIT SI
Caltech (Bellan)

In response to the cuts, the head of the University Fusion Association sent a letter to the director of Fusion Energy Sciences at DOE asking for a more orderly transition and close out (but not for a reversal).  Here’s a sad quote:

We recognize that due to budget constraints and changing programmatic priorities, difficult funding decisions must sometimes be made…

The cuts aren’t sweeping, but rather targeted.  The details are important.  [Note:  This article needs more details - The full picture is yet to emerge].  The overall fusion budget went from $394M in ‘09 to $426M in ‘10 (due to a one time ITER bump, I’m told) and down to $380M for ‘11.  Spending categories blanket the specifics so it’s hard to tell what was cut or redistributed.  Per one university researcher:

ITER is growing so [OFES] has to continue to support that.  In fact, fusion funding is growing if you count ITER and NIF.  The “fringe” ideas aren’t being funded.  Again, you should remember that the private money that Eric Lerner gets or TriAlpha or General Fusion is *much* more than a typical university scale experiment.  You guys are the ones doing the non-tokamak work now.

Dark days for fusion.  Hopefully this is just the darkness before dawn.

Dawn of a Policy Sea Change

Against this depressing backdrop, there is a hopeful development.  Per this MIT interview:

During a visit on Wednesday to MIT, Arun Majumdar, director of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy (ARPA-E), discussed the global energy challenge and the role his agency plays in trying to foster transformational energy research and development.

ARPA-E - if you recall - didn’t fund fusion related projects in its first round, although it seemed tailor made for such funding.  LPP applied for a grant, as did many other ICC fusion approaches.  Here is more information about ICC approaches and funding difficulties.  Here is a list of funded ARPA-E projects

This lack of fusion funding is likely related to ARPA-E’s small budget.  Majumdar was asked if he saw enough worthy projects on the horizon to justify 25 billion a year in energy research spending.  His response:

You bet. Absolutely. We are totally oversubscribed. The innovation ecosystem — the scientific and engineering community — is ready. They’re just asking how high they should be jumping.

“Post-Partisan Power” report

Current energy R& D in the United States is $4 Billion.  The $25 Billion figure comes from a recently issued report, “Post-Partisan Power,” (“PPP”) written in collaboration by scholars of American Enterprise Institute, Brookings Institution and the Breakthrough Institute.  Per Wikipedia:

Along with the American Enterprise Institute and Heritage Foundation, Brookings is generally considered one of the three most influential policy institutes in the U.S.

The report calls for revamping America’s energy innovation system with the aim of making clean energy cheap.  It explicitly advocates increasing government energy investment from $4B to $25B annually.  Fusion is mentioned briefly.

This is something to build on. 

Making the case for fusion, leveraging PPP

Fusion spending, and the way it should be allocated, are not discussed in the PPP paper.  There is a lot for the fusion community to do.  What we need to work towards is making sure the fusion community and all its diverse segments are developing a comprehensive menu of projects and funding needs and desires - a “True Fusion Preferences” menu. 

This includes LPP and other Focus Fusion (Dense Plasma Focus plus pB11 fuel) approaches.  What would the dream resources for Focus Fusion research look like?  What about collaboration?  If you could get away from the shoe string and to adequate support, what, specifically, is required? 

It’s up to each segment of the fusion community to make the case for funding expansion and provide a vision of their own approach.  Then it’s up to the community to be supportive of these diverse segments and build a case for inclusive expansion of diverse approaches.  A bit more of the old “all for one and one for all”.

The idea is that if initiatives like the Post Partisan Power report gain traction, the fusion community needs to be ready to seize the opportunity.  Likewise, if the fusion community appears ready to seize opportunities, better opportunities will come to it.  If it generates a clear and compelling message. 

In a virtuous circle, clarity of pro-fusion feedback and supporting white papers will help PPP style initiatives gain traction.

Currently, the fusion community is not on this message.  There is no sense of urgency, no case for diversification, no mention of aneutronic fusion.  It’s no wonder the public and policy makers let fusion sit on the back burner.

Statements such as the following quote actually damage the case for fusion, because they make it seem as if fusion research needs are being adequately, addressed.  This is from an editorial in JOFE:

This year, ICC researchers have been redirected to address pressing concerns for mainline systems.  This change in direction is a natural one that follows on from two intensive planning activities - the first organized by FESAC for toroidal alternates, and the second organized by the Burning Plasma Organization.  Both planning activities were excellent and outline the future necessary steps for burning plasma science and for alternate concepts by showing how common scientific [sic] can be addressed.

“Redirected to address pressing concerns for mainline systems”  - what a sad euphemism.  “Natural”  “Excellent” - interesting choice of adjective.  This makes it seem that all is well in fusion funding strategy, and everyone is in consensus about that.  It would have been just as easy to phrase the above in such a way to make it clear that redirecting research to mainline systems is a compromise adopted under duress, due to limited resources and is far from ideal or adequate.  There’s a lot more work that can be done in the field of fusion. 

The author wants us to feel good about policy decisions, but this does not make a case for expansion of funding, nor does it indicate that projects and initiatives are being lost/under-funded. 

The tone of the UFA letter was much more appropriate, but sadly it wasn’t asking for a reversal, just a less painful close-out.

Bottom line, we have to make sure the fusion community is ready to leap into action, to make a compelling case for expansion of a comprehensive range of research projects and for greater funding, and to be poised to take advantage of any expansion in energy spending.  We have to be clear that what we’ve got now is limited.  Self-censorship has gone on long enough.

This is the “Shock Doctrine” approach.  We need to be prepared for a sea change.  There may be a day when what now seems impossible will then seem inevitable. 

Additional Notes on the Post-Partisan Power document

The PPP is a great step forward for energy policy.  I’m thrilled that it has made its debut.  I also have some comments:


PPP presents five options for funding the increases in energy research spending:

  • phasing out current subsidies for wind, solar, etc. 
  • a modest increase in royalties charged to oil and gas companies,
  • A small fee on imported oil
  • A surcharge on electricity sales, and
  • Revenue from a small carbon price - i.e., a gas tax (“equivalent of less than a nickel per gallon increase in gasoline prices and just a third of what recent proposed cap and trade legislation would have cost consumers and businesses.”)

The last four sound good to me, but the first will annoy many of my friends in renewables, and I don’t want this to seem like an either/or thing.  Ultimately, the strategy of spending on research is supposed to drop the price of all energy, including renewables, so it’s all good, but I’d start with the last 4 sources of funding first. 

Missed Opportunity

A surprising shortfall of PPP in our post networked era is that it makes no mention of leveraging new media or “Gov 2.0” type approaches.  Their analysis makes a great case for reviving tried and true methods of government-centric spending on research with military procurement as the main driver.  Fair enough, but it’s time to get creative and crack open the pinata of the “long tail.” 

Don’t just tax people at the pump - give them the ability to pick and choose energy projects to invest in, and the legal right to do so, even if they aren’t “accredited investors”. 

Now, THAT is a topic I’d like to set a think tank loose on.

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There is one comment.

Brian H's avatar

Put not your faith in princes. Or politicians or bureaucrats.

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