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Of Fusion and Funding

First noted in Star Spangled Cosmos, this article from the Palm Beach Post about fusion research, focusing on recent progress and discussing the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) consortium. The latter group plans to build an experimental fusion reactor in France by 2016. Speaking to Stephen Paul, a senior research physicist at Princeton University’s plasma laboratory, writer Ron Wiggins notes that fusion reactions have been sustained in laboratory settings for up to 24 seconds. How do we fund the next steps toward viability?

From the story:

The problem is that plasma — the primordial gas resulting when hydrogen atoms are heated to 100 million degrees — is difficult to contain in small reactors.

The bigger the reactor, the easier it is to control the reaction. Big reactors are expensive.

“Our reactor at Princeton is small — a man could walk into it. England has the biggest facility — about two stories.”

ITER would create such a reactor, a five-story experimental unit built to the tune of $5.5 billion, with the US paying up to $200 million per year once construction begins in 2006. Costs would be shared between the U.S., Japan, Russia, England and the European Union. Wiggins goes on to note that U.S. research is in a squeeze, with domestic research on fusion being cut to pay for ITER commitments. Paul told Wiggins that learning to manage plasma in small spaces should keep U.S. labs in the thick of the fusion hunt, and make them more rational repositories of funding than ITER, if the budget gets so tight that it comes down to a choice between the two.

Centauri Dreams‘ take: Getting practical fusion to work in a propulsion system is going to demand radical reductions in scale, just the sort of thing laboratories like Princeton are engaged in studying, though with more earthly considerations in mind. Even so, the annual U.S. budget for fusion research is less than $200 million per year. It seems reasonable to direct that funding toward the kind of containment systems that will make fusion practicable both for power production and, ultimately, advanced propulsion systems that could open up the outer planets.

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