These are the preamplifiers used to boost the energy of the laser beams used at the National Ignition Facility
These are the preamplifiers used to boost the energy of the laser beams used at the National Ignition Facility // Damien Jemison/Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory

America’s Fusion Race With China Is Heating Up, So Why Is Washington Going Cold?

Researchers with the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California recently announced a major step forward in pursuit of the so-called holy grail of energy: fusion.

Fusion in this case refers to merging two atoms into a single, heavier atom. In bonding, excess energy from the atoms is released, and if the amount released is higher than the amount that hit the two particles to merge them, the result is fusion energy. This is what researcher Omar Hurricane and his colleagues successfully demonstrated, via laser, at the lab’s National Ignition Facility, or NIF, last August. On Wednesday, the team published their findings in the journal Nature, making it official.

Houston, we have fusion.

That doesn’t mean that we have the sort of fusion unlocked by Elizabeth Shue in the action movie The Saint. By zapping a few hydrogen atoms with 500 terawatts (a terawatt is a trillion watts) of energy through an array of 192 lasers for less than a nanosecond, the researchers got twice as much energy out of the atoms as hit them. But only about 10 percent of the energy used in the experiment actually hit the hydrogen. So, from an energy perspective, the experiment was still a loss. It does, however, suggest that researchers one day will conduct a fusion test where the reactor is able to sustainably make more energy than is lost in the attempt. This is called ignition and remains some ways off. Regardless, the breakthrough at the NIF is a big step forward in showing that fusion is a viable energy for the future.

You could be forgiven for thinking that this puts the U.S. in the lead in the fusion race. In fact, U.S. dominance in fusion research is hardly guaranteed, even after Hurricane’s achievement.

First, there are actually two types of fusion: inertial and magnetic. Hurricane’s paper demonstrating fusion with lasers involves the inertial type. The other type of fusion, also called magnetic confinement fusion, uses hot gas encased in a giant ring to squish atoms together to produce energy. While the U.S. has several ongoing magnetic fusion projects, so do many other countries. And China hosts one of the most significant magnetic fusion centers in the world, the HT-7 Tokamak facility in the city if Hefei.

Nuclear energy breakthroughs can’t be patented, thanks to the Atomic Energy Act of 1954 and the Atoms for Peace program that emerged under President Dwight Eisenhower. So we don’t have to worry about one nation getting an exclusive on fusion. But without public investment, we won’t be able take advantage of new knowledge that’s being created around the world, and that will put us in a very weak position vis-a-vis China, according to experts.

They’re investing. They’ve really been very diligent in pursuing next generation energy technologies with consistent support, as opposed to what you’re seeing in the U.S., which is difficulty maintaining consistent effort moving forward because of budget variability,” said Paul Roege, program manager at Idaho National Laboratory and a retired Army colonel. China has contributed $2.1 billion to a $21 billion international project called the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor and is also spending more internally.

“The Chinese are training 2,000 scientists to take advantage of the gains in international research [into fusion],” Andrew Holland of the American Security Project said. “Similar things are happening in Russia and South Korea. The U.S. is very much in danger of being left behind.”

Holland rejects the argument that U.S. dominance in inertial (laser) fusion means that we can abandon research into the magnetic kind. The science is too young. “We can’t afford not to walk and chew gum at the same time. The size of the global energy market shows that there’s room for both types of reactors.”

But the U.S. is also in danger of losing its lead in laser-based fusion, too. This week’s big success aside, NIF in recent years is considered a facility under constant threat of budget cuts, especially after the formal program to which the ignition goal was attached — the National Ignition Campaign — expired in 2012. NIF failed to demonstrate fusion soon enough for lawmakers.

Here’s how the House Armed Services Committee put it in their report to accompany the fiscal 2013 National Defense Authorization Act:

The committee understands that achieving self-sustained thermonuclear fusion in a laboratory setting is a difficult undertaking and believes that achieving ignition at NIF would be a tremendously valuable and historic accomplishment. However, the committee is concerned that, should ignition not be achieved by the end of fiscal year 2012, the fiscal year 2013 budget request would continue an aggressive pace for ignition experiments at NIF even though the NIC [National Ignition Campaign] itself will be concluded.” 

The belief was that the NIF shouldn’t be wasting taxpayer money chasing the unicorn of fusion. Instead, researchers should focus on the more pedestrian task for which the facility was designed: running simulations to measure the health of the U.S. nuclear stockpile. President Barack Obama’s most recent budget also spelled out big cuts for the facility, from $383 million in 2013 to “not less than $329 million” in fiscal 2014.

Cutting NIF’s ability to continue ambitious research into ignition would be “shortsighted,” Holland said. “That would cause us to lose our lead.” To fix this problem, he says the U.S. needs a fusion energy program that handles both magnetic and inertial research within the Department of Energy.

It’s an issue with national security implications. The amount of fossil fuel the military uses to power ships and bases is a strategic disadvantage the Pentagon is trying to change. The military uses 20 times more fuel than it did during World War II, even though there are 20 times fewer boots on the ground, by Roege’s calculation. It’s not just about the long war, or even the cost of fuel requirements. Fuel resupply lines are an Achilles’ heel for most armies. Fusion will never be small enough to power a tank, but could conceivably be made small enough to power a ship or forward operating base.

Of course, the old joke about fusion power is that it’s always 50 years away. Hoffman, in a paper for the American Security Project, argues that researchers should be able to demonstrate ignition in just 10 years and commercial viability in 20. That forecast might be optimistic, but the breakthrough published in Nature this week shows that it’s hardly out of the realm of possibility. If that goal is reachable, someone, somewhere, will get there.

The estimated price tag for U.S. taxpayers to win the fusion race: $30 billion.

CORRECTION: This article was corrected to indicate that one terawatt is equal to one trillion watts, not one billion.