back to article Scientists, why not simply invent a working fusion plant using $50m from Uncle Sam

The US Department of Energy has announced plans to award up to $50 million in funds to private businesses to develop a working fusion pilot plant (FPP) by the 2030s.  Nuclear fusion is expected, or hoped or dreamed, to produce abundant amounts of energy with zero or near-zero carbon emissions during operation. According to DoE …

  1. GBE

    Nuclear fusion power produces abundant amounts of energy

    Nuclear fusion power produces abundant amounts of energy with zero carbon emissions during operation.

    Oh it does, does it?

    That's certainly good news!

    1. diodesign (Written by Reg staff) Silver badge

      Indeed

      Yup, that's the dream.

      C.

      1. b0llchit Silver badge
        Facepalm

        Re: Indeed

        So,... it'll all be over, the free of carbon, when I wake up? Damn, need to remain REM sleeping for the next few decades.

      2. John Robson Silver badge
        Alien

        Re: Indeed

        It's more than a dream - when the rain stops just look up...

    2. LybsterRoy Silver badge

      Re: Nuclear fusion power produces abundant amounts of energy

      Well it depends on which bit of the fusion cycle you're running - don't forget the heavy elements came from fusion reactions.

      1. Sam not the Viking Silver badge
        Pint

        Re: Nuclear fusion power produces abundant amounts of energy

        That would be all the elements, except hydrogen.

        Eventually creating a welcome-->

        1. DJO Silver badge

          Re: Nuclear fusion power produces abundant amounts of energy

          91% of Helium and 23% of Lithium is primordial.

          Beryllium, Boron and about 13% of Lithium are not produced in stars but by cosmic ray spallation in open space.

    3. rafff

      Re: Nuclear fusion power produces abundant amounts of energy

      "Nuclear fusion power produces abundant amounts of energy with zero carbon emissions during operation."

      But not free of heat pollution. To achieve that we need to use wind, solar, wave/water ...

      1. Tom 7 Silver badge

        Re: Nuclear fusion power produces abundant amounts of energy

        Heat pollution from fusion is nothing compared with that from AGW.

        However it may be fatal for fusion. I'm not sure being a few meters away from 100millionK is something materials science can crack in time.

        1. TVU

          Re: Nuclear fusion power produces abundant amounts of energy

          "Heat pollution from fusion is nothing compared with that from AGW"

          Indeed. One of the very interesting things is that waste heat from human industrial processes is a negligible component of climate change. It's the heat trapping gases like carbon dioxide, methane and others that are doing massive climate damage.

      2. Sam not the Viking Silver badge
        Coat

        Re: Nuclear fusion power produces abundant amounts of energy

        Technically, heat-pollution is still energy.

    4. hoola Silver badge

      Re: Nuclear fusion power produces abundant amounts of energy

      The one minor detail is that this has been the hole grail for years now.

      The science is getting a bit closer but we are still putting in more energy that we get out.

      1. Michael Wojcik Silver badge

        Re: Nuclear fusion power produces abundant amounts of energy

        Er, grails don't have holes. Mugs have holes. Check your topology.

        1. hplasm
          Joke

          Re: Nuclear fusion power produces abundant amounts of energy

          "Mugs have holes. Check your topology."

          Klein Mug has hole...

  2. Scoular

    It has the POTENTIAL to supply energy.

    So far it has not delivered anything despite decades of substantial investment and some encouraging signs.

    Then it has to provide energy economically to compete with renewables which even if honesty prevails and the cost of storage is included fusion may not achieve generally. Some uses will exist even at high prices but economics is always the key to success.

  3. JassMan Silver badge
    Headmaster

    Given the average incandescent bulb is 60W

    Pedant alert!

    it still only equates to around 28 watt-hours of electricity – not even enough to usefully illuminate the average incandescent bulb. ®

    I make that almost half an hour of useful light, but it would be more environmentaly friendly if it was a Led.

    1. Evil Auditor Silver badge
      Thumb Up

      Re: Given the average incandescent bulb is 60W

      Where could you even find (buy) an average incandescent bulb these days?

      1. Andy The Hat Silver badge

        Re: Given the average incandescent bulb is 60W

        How many do you need? Still relatively easily available as the "phase out by ..." EU rules were not written correctly, allowing producers to continue to supply the EU market. Hard to find? From the biggies on the high street perhaps but otherwise available and not illegal to sell as was the intention.

      2. The Bobster
        Joke

        Re: Given the average incandescent bulb is 60W

        "Incandescent? I was absolutely livid!"

      3. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Given the average incandescent bulb is 60W

        No problem - there was a get-out clause for "industry use" of incandescent bulbs. Possibly you might need them with control electronics that wouldn't work properly with the lower consumption of LED equivalents.

      4. katrinab Silver badge
        Meh

        Re: Given the average incandescent bulb is 60W

        Inside your oven perhaps?

        https://www.diy.com/departments/crompton-lamps-40w-40x70mm-oven-e14-warm-white-clear/5018986650022_BQ.prd

        I think that is now the average incandescent bulb.

  4. JassMan Silver badge
    Trollface

    I've already got a working fusion power source

    Its called the sun, so will they give me $50M to put solar panels on my roof, if I write it up as a proposal?

    1. eldakka Silver badge
      Coffee/keyboard

      Re: I've already got a working fusion power source

      You are indeed technically correct (the best type of correct).

      Of course, on that basis, wind power is also fusion-based as it's the temperature differentials caused by the heating and cooling cycle from the sun that causes the pressure differentials that causes wind. As are fossil fuels, as they are stored solar (i.e. fusion) energy by way of the fossilization of plants and animals that stores the energy obtained via photosynthesis.

    2. SkippyBing

      Re: I've already got a working fusion power source

      Plus you've air gapped your power supply so it's more secure.

      1. Arthur the cat Silver badge

        Re: I've already got a working fusion power source

        Vacuum gapped, Shirley?

        1. Richard 12 Silver badge

          Re: I've already got a working fusion power source

          How about both? Both is good.

    3. Jason Bloomberg Silver badge
      Coat

      Re: I've already got a working fusion power source

      I've got my plans drawn up for a telescoping heat-pipe which can more efficiently bring energy from the sun to the earth.

      It's not like we're going to stop orbiting it any time soon and, given the current cost of living crisis, I could do with a share of the $50 million no matter how small.

    4. Little Mouse Silver badge

      Re: I've already got a working fusion power source

      I propose that we increase the power output of the sun.

      That'd be far more effective than the tiny incremental efficiency gains we're getting from solar panels, and only slightly less feasible than getting fusion up and running in less than a decade for a mere $50,000,000.

      1. Bill Gray
        Devil

        Re: I've already got a working fusion power source

        Or... we could _decrease_ the power output of the sun, thereby eliminating global warming, then use more fossil fuels to bring the temperature back up. Simples!

        1. Arthur the cat Silver badge

          Re: I've already got a working fusion power source

          Just move the Earth FFS. Much easier.

          1. jake Silver badge
            Pint

            Re: I've already got a working fusion power source

            I'll find a place to stand, you find a long enough lever.

            We'll split the $50 million and buy the house a round. Or several.

            1. Anonymous Coward
              Anonymous Coward

              Re: I've already got a working fusion power source

              It's surprising what effect topology changes have on the Earth's rotation and possibly its orbit. Think of all that water sloshing about in the oceans' movements for one.

  5. Anonymous Coward
    Boffin

    Great

    I'll be sure to take my flying car to the ribbon cutting.

    While hot fusion is scientifically more likely than cold fusion, the odds of fusion energy being implemented as a reliable component of the energy grid are close to nil for both sources.

    Remember that initial attempts at fusion were made to study reactions in stars. Then the press and the funders got hold of the idea of free power.

    1. DJO Silver badge

      Re: Great

      The initial attempts at fusion were not to study stars but to blow things up, and were (regrettably) very successful.

      1. jake Silver badge

        Re: Great

        No. Other way around. They knew it happened in stars, and used that theory to build bombs.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Great

          I thought nuclear bombs were fission chain reactions - not fusion.

          1. that one in the corner Silver badge

            Re: Great

            Nuclear bombs; pick your favourite type:

            Fission = A-bomb

            Fusion = H-bomb

    2. jake Silver badge

      Re: Great

      "I'll be sure to take my flying car to the ribbon cutting."

      Driven by your household robot, after it changes the sprog's nappies & mows the lawn, no doubt.

  6. Throatwarbler Mangrove Silver badge
    Joke

    My brilliant idea

    Why not just slow down the explosion of a hydrogen bomb enough that we can usefully capture the energy? I'll leave the implementation details up to others, I'm more of an idea man.

    1. Headley_Grange Silver badge

      Re: My brilliant idea

      Isn't that called a nuclear power station?

      1. Ian Johnston Silver badge

        Re: My brilliant idea

        A hydrogen bomb is mainly fusion.

    2. Lon24 Silver badge

      Re: My brilliant idea

      Yep, have the explosion in some sort of monster balloon. After balloooning out you could have a controlled release of hot gases through the nozzle. A bonus would be to design it make rude noises. Pointing it at Putin perhaps?

    3. Chris Roberts

      Re: My brilliant idea

      That is pretty much what the pellet type fusion experiments do, whether by shooting the pellet with lasers or just shooting a pellet at a target.

    4. hoola Silver badge

      Re: My brilliant idea

      I am sure it must be possible to do something with some empty beans tins or maybe an old aluminium beer keg, some firebricks, and a bit of garden hose. We could go upmarket and use some plumbers bits.

  7. sitta_europea

    Just to put things in perspective: after a couple of decades, the total spent on ITER is about twenty billion.

    The world uses ballpark 15 to 30 billion barrels of oil per year at a ballpark cost of 750 to 2400 billion.

    So - even at wholesale oil prices - every few days we spend on oil what we've spent in total on ITER.

    JET produced 16MW of fusion power in 1997. Not for very long, and it took 24MW to produce it, but that's a Q of 0.67 and given that record I'd have thought it worth risking a bit more than the shoestring funding that it's had since then.

    Talk about getting your priorities straight...

  8. Fruit and Nutcase Silver badge
    Thumb Up

    Cold Fusion

    $50million will be just about enough to try to see I can get this to work

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cold_fusion

    Or I may die of old age or run out of the money trying

    1. Toe Knee

      Re: Cold Fusion

      Risks, certainly, but what we must do For Progress (TM)! When you don’t leave your estate, err… Research Complex with Residential Annex, it will clearly be due to the ground breaking science done within. And the lack of publication data is merely good OpSec. If you’re hiring, let me know: a guest house on the back 40 would be enough for me. I’m not a greedy man :)

    2. Michael Wojcik Silver badge

      Re: Cold Fusion

      Try powering it up with an e-Cat, maybe.

    3. Fred Goldstein

      Re: Cold Fusion

      Many, including here, conclude that cold fusion cannot exist, because hot fusion exists and because Pons and Fleischmann weren't very convincing, and had the wrong credentials anyway. But that doesn't mean that there can't be an avenue of fusion other than what stars do.

      The problem with hot fusion reactors is that they've been 20-40 years away for over 40 years, and still are. Even if net-positive fusion is achieved, capturing that energy safely is an extremely non-trivial engineering problem. Among others. I rather think that most fusion research is largely a welfare program for physicists, with an off chance of eventually being productive.

      1. that one in the corner Silver badge

        Re: Cold Fusion

        > The problem with hot fusion reactors is that they've been 20-40 years away

        I think you'll find that they have always been only 10 years away.

      2. katrinab Silver badge
        Unhappy

        Re: Cold Fusion

        The other thing is that a net-positive reaction isn't enough. The output would power a steam engine, with the usual 33% or so efficiency. Then you have to use that electricity to heat and pressurise hydrogen atoms, and there's pretty substantial efficiency losses there as well.

    4. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Cold Fusion

      You'd be lucky to get the committee table and seating arrangements sorted for that money.

  9. jake Silver badge

    At least it's only $50m ...

    ... of my tax dollars being wasted this time.

    I wonder who will draw the lucky straw and be allowed to pocket the bulk of it. Why do I suspect the answer was written in stone several weeks before the announcement?

    1. This post has been deleted by its author

      1. jake Silver badge

        Re: At least it's only $50m ...

        Re-read the fine article. It's 50 million in funding, not 50 million in prize money.

        1. Michael Wojcik Silver badge

          Re: At least it's only $50m ...

          Shrug. Bucket, meet drop.

          (I'd complain about "my tax money", but frankly it's not worth arguing over a concept that stupid.)

    2. Fruit and Nutcase Silver badge
      Pint

      Re: At least it's only $50m ...

      ... of my tax dollars being wasted this time.

      That's a pretty hefty amount of tax you have paid Jake.

      Have a beer, you've earned it.

      ps - We now have lower taxes for wealthy individuals here in blighty, it's all due to Putin says our PM

      1. jake Silver badge
        Pint

        Re: At least it's only $50m ...

        It's the Royal "my". Consider:

        I pay my share of US taxes, according to current tax law (and my CPA), same as everybody else ought to.

        Once the Government gets their greedy mitts on it, "we, the people" STILL own it, all, by definition. Including this little 50 mil subset.

        So yes, it's MINE. It also belongs to every other citizen who pays their taxes.

        Beer?

        My deductions as a farmer/rancher are codified into Law. I am law abiding.

      2. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: At least it's only $50m ...

        Truss was elected by a vote of only paid-up members of the Tory party. To be a member you pay £25 a year to subscribe. Apparently there are no requirements for you to have any connection to the UK.

        Back of a fag packet.

        80,000 members' votes should be enough to decide a contest in your favour. So a cool £2m from your petty cash to subscribe your ghost members. Easily pays for itself on this week's shorting of the pound.

  10. Binraider Silver badge

    The healthy cynicism displayed in the comments is obviously justified, but I can't help but think that the country that figures out working fusion first (if it doesn't fritter it away) is also in an extremely strong position.

    I'm sure the devil is in the detail and the 50M is earmarked for dealing with specific R&D problems. Or, it would be, if I were in charge of setting out funding for things.

    The progress displayed in recent South Korean and Chinese reactor run-times is significant; one does not have to get that much further to have figured out stability.

    50-years away for the last 50 years is perhaps, finally, a target that is finally getting closer.

    1. Francis Boyle Silver badge

      It's been 30 years away for the last 40 years but recently I saw someone make the joke with the reduced value of 20 years so that, I suppose, is progress. (Personally, I'd be prepared to wage a modest sum on 10.)

      1. jake Silver badge

        It was 50 years away in the 1960s. It's twenty years now because they've used computers to shave 30 years of sliderule time off the piddly little details.

        1. Francis Boyle Silver badge

          That's what I've heard

          which is why I was care to say 40 years which happens to about as far back as my memory goes.

    2. Arthur the cat Silver badge

      The healthy cynicism displayed in the comments is obviously justified, but I can't help but think that the country that figures out working fusion first (if it doesn't fritter it away) is also in an extremely strong position.

      What I don't understand is how we're supposed to get the power out, even if we have working fusion. So I've got this dynamically stable doughnut of fusing hydrogen which I'm carefully keeping from touching anything – now what?

      1. Ian Johnston Silver badge

        80% of the heat produced is in the form of emitted neutrons. These are not confined with the plasma, for obvious reasons, so they hit the walls, get absorbed and warm them up. Extracting the resulting heat from slabs of metal is left as an exercise for the reader.

        See: https://www.iter.org/sci/MakingitWork

        1. jake Silver badge

          "Extracting the resulting heat from slabs of metal is left as an exercise for the reader."

          I'd recommend taking the heat a grain of salt. Or maybe several grains, melted.

      2. Innominate Chicken

        The neutrons are escaping

        In the case of the Deuterium-Tritium fusion reaction the products of each fusion are a helium nuclear and a neutron, along with the energy released in the process. The majority of that energy is in the kinetic energy of the lone neutron. As the neutron has no charge it has no interest in the magnetic confinement keeping the plasma in the stellar doughnut and continues on its way out of the reactor vessel.

        Inside the vessel walls (Made of a large quantity of dense material) the neutron collides with atoms in the wall, transferring kinetic energy to them. At the macroscopic scale, the kinetic energy of atoms becomes heat, so for a large enough quantity of produced neutrons the vessel walls heat up. The last step is to run a coolant through the walls to remove the heat, and from there it can be used to boil water and drive a steam turbine in the same way as any thermal power station.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: The neutrons are escaping

          > Inside the vessel walls (Made of a large quantity of dense material) the neutron collides with atoms in the wall, transferring kinetic energy to them.

          In the process transmuting some of them into other isotopes - most likely radioactive ones. You seriously won't want to go near that vessel for a while even after the plant has been turned off.

          Seeing "clean" and "cheap" in the same sentence as fusion power makes me wince.

          1. jake Silver badge

            Re: The neutrons are escaping

            ::sighs::

            Won't it be nice when science cycles back into being a good thing, and they start teaching it in school again?

          2. NickHolland

            Re: The neutrons are escaping

            about time someone thought about what happens when all those neutrons hit things...

            1. Boris the Cockroach Silver badge
              Boffin

              Re: The neutrons are escaping

              Quote

              "about time someone thought about what happens when all those neutrons hit things..."

              How do you think we're going to get the tritium for the D-T fusion plasma?

              1 neutron + lithium nucleus = 1 helium nucleus+ 1 tritium nucleus

              Ok it may have seemed crazy to spend so much cash over the years chasing fusion, but considering the US defence budget is 700 billion dollars and ITAR is costing 25 billion..... I suspect its a bargain... also if it works, the payback will be huge.

    3. DrSunshine0104

      I love science. I will read about physics, medical, philosophy all-day, any day. More money for basic research is never a bad thing to me. Fusion may still be 50-years away but 50 million to the US government is nothing; for something as game changing and with such a high potential, I would say that needs to be 4x that amount. Oh, yeah that's right Northrup Grumman would be denied the sale of 2 fighter jets.

      I once had an argument with an old boss over why basic scientific research wasn't a waste of time or money. He was a Ayn Rand-ian type who thought if it didn't make money it was useless. I tried explaining how that didn't make sense logically, it would be an even larger waste of time to dream up fanciful gadgets to sell, and then do all the basic research to implement it. Then if a product failed we would have scientists looking for jobs all the time instead of making scientific progress on their topics, a university is a stable place for them to land jobs and work on topics that might take generations to crack.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        "a university is a stable place for them to land jobs and work on topics"

        Unfortunately much university research nowadays seems to be aimed at producing papers to raise the profile of the researcher and university. Apparently you are often judged by your university (and others) on how many papers you are producing - not their ground-breaking content.

  11. Il'Geller Bronze badge

    Nuclear fusion is impossible because electron removal is unthinkable. We are dealing with a scam.

    1. Arthur the cat Silver badge
      1. Michael Wojcik Silver badge

        Geller is one of the Reg's resident kooks. (For extra credit, look up his patents sometime. They're fun.) So you shouldn't expect a rational explanation.

        1. jake Silver badge
          Pint

          Bit of a troll, yes, possibly also deluded. Probably has a screw loose (Most of the good ElReg commentards do, to one degree or another). But kook? Nah. He has shown no sign of typical kook behavio(u)r, most notably I've seen no sign of paranoia, nor threats against his detractors.

          Perhaps "one of ElReg's resident loons" would be more accurate.

          1. Def Silver badge
            Coat

            I don't have any loose screws. Mine all fell out years ago.

    2. Spamfast
      FAIL

      Nuclear fusion is impossible because electron removal is unthinkable. We are dealing with a scam.

      I look up in the mornings and see evidence that nuclear fusion is entirely possible.

      I also look up at night and see even more of the reactors.

      (Unless you think they all run on coal?)

      What we've not been able to achieve is sustainable confinement, temperature & pressure even using deuterium/tritium rather that proton/proton fusion. However, recent use of deep learning algorithms to point to the plasma control is interesting.

      But we've been here before of course.

      1. Il'Geller Bronze badge

        The first postulate of Quantitative theory: In this volume there is only such a number of elements. For example 100 photons, see Avogadro number and periodical table. This theory has been proved by, among others, double-slit experiments. Which means that the electron must stay in the atom and it is impossible to remove it without destroying the atom. Then it is impossible to reach the nucleus, no matter how the atom heats up. Controlled nuclear fusion is impossible and is a scam.

        1. jake Silver badge

          Out of curiosity, how does your theory explain Alpha particles? How about free protons?

          1. Il'Geller Bronze badge

            There is no way to publish anything in English, because I am an outlaw, thanks to my patents. In Russian by the same reason.

            The difference in measures and in the used philosophies: the Internal Relations theory of Analytical Philosophy, of Hegel and Bradley, in Quantitive. So far, only the External Relations theory has been used in physics, of Russell and Moore. For instance used by Kurchatov, who was an engineer and not a scientist.

            As a measures, quantity is used, of the Avogadro number; instead of distance, speed, energy, etc. In the spirit of the Set Theory: electron cannot be removed no matter what. Unless atom is destroyed and nuclear phusion cannot be done.

            1. jake Silver badge

              OK, I'll try again.

              How do you explain the functionality of a cathode ray tube?

    3. Alistair
      Windows

      Nuclear fusion is impossible because electron removal is unthinkable. We are dealing with a scam.

      I'm going to suggest that you look up *just what it is* that happens in batteries. You'd be electrified.

      1. jake Silver badge

        Quite shocked, I dare say.

        1. Il'Geller Bronze badge

          I'm being banned now, without explanation, from all forums. No one wants the death of the money cow of physics — of thermonuclear fusion. Everyone is afraid of losing their sinecures, money and regalia. But it's too late, I said the words.

  12. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    I'm not well-versed in the science, so go easy. I seem to recall that two of the main difficulties of sustained fusion relate to maintaining a near-vacuum and keeping the remaining raw material trapped magnetically. If that's not already completely wrong, has there been any discussion of whether any part of this could, eventually, benefit from running outside the atmosphere?

    1. Richard 12 Silver badge

      Lots of discussion

      However, you don't build the proof-of-concept in space.

      Or even the prototype.

      $50M isn't even chickenfeed though. They won't get any physical hardware for that money.

      At best, it might pay for computer simulations.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Lots of discussion

        "They won't get any physical hardware for that money."

        Hmm - they might get a large table with a requisite number of chairs round it. That is - once they have decided on the office location, table shape and who should be on the committee.

    2. NickHolland

      well, there's an incredibly powerful fusion reactor running outside the earth's atmosphere -- the sun -- and it demonstrates both the benefits you were hoping for, but also the problems -- how do you get the energy from the reactor where it is produced to where it is needed? If you could transmit the power safely and efficiently, you could, much easier, just collect solar power from space and transport it down (which has been discussed, but is missing both the "efficiently" and "safely" parts).

  13. Joe Gurman

    Um….

    What’s an ‘incandescent” bulb?

    1. Richard 12 Silver badge
      Coat

      Re: Um….

      A really hot daffodil

      1. jake Silver badge

        Re: Um….

        I think I dated her a few times ... hey, it was Berkeley in the '70s, what can I say?

      2. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Um….

        "A really hot daffodil"

        Kniphofia - aka "red hot pokers"

        1. Aussie Doc
          Joke

          Re: Um….

          "...aka "red hot pokers"..."

          My favourite band.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Um….

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Incandescent_light_bulb

    3. cmdrklarg

      Re: Um….

      From Captain America Civil War:

      Spider-Man : Hey guys, you ever see that really old movie, Empire Strikes Back?

      War Machine : Jesus, Tony, how old is this guy?

      Iron Man : I don't know, I didn't carbon date him. He's on the young side.

  14. DevOpsTimothyC Bronze badge

    Will $50M even cover the certification costs

    I'm going to guess the $50m on offer won't even cover all the regulatory costs associated with getting a fusion plant to the point where it can commercially feed into the grid.

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