Have we spent too much on fusion?

Consider this quote:

“Scientists and governments have spent almost unfathomable wealth trying to fulfill the dream of fusion.”

Where have we heard this?

  • The jacket of Charles Seife’s book, “Sun in a Bottle”. 
  • A lot of people think this.  Just ask them.
  • A lot of supporters of Focus Fusion - referring to mainline fusion. 

Is it true?

Since 1953, when the fusion program started, the total spent on fusion energy in the US, both Magnetic and Inertial is $22.4 Billion dollars. 

Adjusting for inflation [year?], total fusion spending is $29.1 Billion. 

That’s for 57 years of fusion funding.  (To get a sense of what’s been going on these 57 years, check out this Gary Weisel Article.)

That’s an average of $393 Million a year - adjusted to $510 million per year in the US.  This includes NIF as well as Tokamaks and alternatives. 

Does that seem like a lot to you?

Another way to look at it:

“Fusion is underfunded.” & “Fusion is worth it.”

Unfathomably underfunded

Is 22.4 billion, adjusted to 29.1 billion unfathomable? 

Unfathomably small, perhaps.

It’s small in net dollars - given the magnitude of what fusion scientists are trying to accomplish.  This is the norm for energy research.  Per these charts from the Post Partisan Power report, energy as a sector is underfunded compared to all other industries.(Download pdf of report here) :

Some perspective:
  • Those 57 years of fusion research cost less than half of what congress wants to spend this year on Stealth bombers ($68.1 Billion) - each stealth bomber costs around $512 million, so that’s one year of fusion research. 
  • 57 years of fusion research costs as much as 72 days of war in Afghanistan and Iraq.    To visualize this, check out this infographic.
  • 57 years of fusion research costs as much as one year of health industry research.  Health is important, but this is a good opportunity to reflect on the routine practice of pharmaceutical companies in R&D - they spend billions on trials of new pharmaceuticals, many of which do not make it to the marketplace.  They consider this a cost of business, rather than waste or failure. 
  • 57 years of fusion research is equal to one fifth of Wall Street executive bonuses this year ($144 Billion). 
  • This is a little more than what BP had to put aside for the gulf oil spill ($20 Billion).
  • The United Arab Emirates dropped a quick $20 billion on building an experimental Carbon Neutral City.
  •   Americans spent $2 Billion on life coaches, $500 million on self-help tapes, and $180 million on male pedicures in one year (per Harley Davidson Ad). 
  • Here’s an interesting essay using a “Manhattan Project” perspective
Underfunded, underestimated

While some would argue that fusion has been “oversold”, it’s more accurate to say that it has been “underestimated.”  Underestimation leads to underfunding and inadequate resources to do the job. 

Underestimation affects big projects and small projects alike.  LPPX originally hoped to take 2 years to demonstrate proof of concept, they are now entering their third year.  This is to be expected in frontier experimental projects. 

It also occurs in construction projects where you would think the engineering is well understood.  Nassim Taleb in Black Swan tells the tale of the Sydney Opera house, originally slated to open in 1963 at a cost of $7 million.  It opened ten years later, a less ambitious version than planned, at a cost of $104 million.  He holds this up as the “mildest” example of the distortions inherent in forecasting.

I’m glad they stuck with the opera house.  It’s a beloved icon now.  What would our reward be for sticking with the pursuit of fusion?

Some have tried to come up with better estimates of the resources required.  Allegedly, the “we’ll have fusion in 30 years” estimate was based on a budget requirement of a billion dollars a year [citation needed].  Naturally, far less was provided.  Worse, the funds were delivered in an erratic way.  Programs were started and stopped.  The field of fusion is littered with mothballed experimental devices that were built, never to be used.  [In that sense, a lot of the money spent on fusion was certainly wasted.  What proportion?  That’s another data gap that could use some research.]  [There is another argument here about “devices” v. “basic physics” approaches - we’ll address that elsewhere.]

As noted above, some members of the Focus Fusion Society would argue that mainline fusion has been over-funded, but the funds have gone to things that don’t work.  Note that this is a destructive argument that pits different fusion approaches against each other and increases ill will in the fusion community. 

We’re not going there.  (Any more.  You might find some relics of this approach on the website - a lot to edit).

Unfortunately, at this time, no particular fusion approach can guarantee that it will deliver net energy, so a policy of hedging bets seems useful.  As Ed Moses says, once they build their device, “either it will work, or we’ll learn some interesting physics.”  As Dmitri Ryutov has said, fusion needs a few “pleasant physics surprises.” 

For both reasons - in order to hedge our bets against the “interesting physics” and increase the odds for “pleasant physics” - it is best to expand and diversify the fusion budget. 

One could spend less and expect the scientists to make do.  Given the uncertainties, spending less just stretches out the uncertainty over a much longer period of time. 

What would an ideal fusion budget be?

This is a useful question to ask.  Yet you would be surprised how few people are comfortable with this question.  There are many variables.  You don’t want people to become struck with greed and profligacy, either.  You want to get people to take out and brush up their dream projects, and you want to attract and retain top talent in the field. 

I don’t think the budget would have to be much more, but I’m no expert.  Fusion scientists have done a lot so far with the budget they’ve had.  And many university projects or basic physics projects require very modest funds.  Coming up with some numbers here is an open task.  (Join some folks in thinking about a dream LPPX budget)

The potential payoff for the investment is awesome

Fusion research brings us in touch with our universe.  Fusion deals in plasmas, which make up 99.9% of the universe.  Per Harold Grad:

The wealth of physical phenomena encountered in the plasma state exceeds the variety spanned by substances as diverse as air, water, peanut butter, and superfluid helium.

Aside from this intrinsic appreciation of our universe, a lot of the information uncovered to date is useful [it would be nice to have data on this]. 

Of course, the showstopper for fusion research is that it has the possible outcome of opening up a vast new energy source and taking mankind to the next level of civilization. 

What’s the upside for the war in Iraq?  Better stability in the region?  Access to oil?  Do stealth bombers make you feel safer? (Note that some of your Congressmen like them because they are “deterrents.”  FYI, Inertial fusion has a deterrent function, but has that upside that the stealth bombers will never have - sustainable energy.)

Other resources:
AAAS Analysis of R&D in the FY 2009 Budget (Revised)
Note Steven Chu’s blog.

Take Action!

Better perspective

More authoritative data is required (international data; also - Harley Davidson bike ad is not a credible source : ))
More compelling comparisons need to be made.
These need to be put into infographic or animated form.

Deeper issue

We need to explore the broader funding issues and come up with better funding mechanisms.  Overall, fusion funding is inadequate.  But when an individual or entity is faced with funding - the picture is daunting.  Perhaps a fusion fund or fusion bonds could help with this.  There may be ways to distribute the risks and rewards to make fusion a less difficult financial bet. 


Hey! There's a forum thread on this topic, too! Check it out »
There are (2) comments.

Regarding useful technologies from plasma, you might say that we’ve been using them since we first learned to create and manipulate fire, although a fire is not always a plasma.

Some more recent plasma technologies:

Fluorescent lamps
Plasma torches (welding, cutting, waste disposal, etc.)
Ion thrusters
Plasma displays
Nonthermal plasmas for food processing
Plasma medicine (surgery, sterlization, etc.)
Plasma antennas

“Those 57 years of fusion research cost less than half of what congress wants to spend this year on Stealth bombers ($68.1 Billion) - each stealth bomber costs around $512 million, so that’s one year of fusion research.”

What year is meant here? This looks like the estimations of the 80s. The bomber became much more expensive in the end. Let me cite wikipedia:

“During the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Congress slashed initial plans to purchase 132 bombers to 21.

Manufactured by Northrop Grumman, the cost of each aircraft averaged US$737 million in 1997 dollars ($1.01 billion today).[3][4] Total procurement costs averaged US$929 million per aircraft ($1.27 billion today[4]), which includes spare parts, equipment, retrofitting, and software support.[3] The total program cost, which includes development, engineering and testing, averaged US$2.1 billion per aircraft (in 1997 dollars, $2.87 billion today).[3][4]”

That would make more than five years of fusion research per stealth bomber!

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