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Does Fusion Have a Future?

U.S. funding reversal for ITER suggests that fusion energy--"always just a few decades away from reality" as the joke goes--may have finally run out of decades

3 min read

14 February 2008—The 2004 report ”Burning Plasma: Bringing a Star to Earth,” from the U.S. National Research Council, sold Washington on the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), a massive R&D project that proponents predict will be the breakthrough project for fusion energy. In its fiscal 2008 budget, however, Congress drove the United States’ role in ITER right into the ground, slashing US $160 million promised for this year to $10.7 million. U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) officials are expected to provide an update on how the United States plans to work around the budget shortfall at a meeting of the agency’s Fusion Energy Sciences Advisory Committee next Tuesday. But the United States’ paltry participation has some wondering if fusion research, considered since the 1960s one of the great long shots for a sustainable and relatively clean energy supply, has run out of time.

ITER, set to begin construction in Cadarache, near Marseilles in southern France, aspires to produce the first self-sustaining fusion reaction. Like most fusion experiments to date, ITER will use formidable electric currents and magnetic fields to induce fusion in isotopes of hydrogen (deuterium and tritium) and to contain the resulting burning plasma—akin to a tiny star and exceeding 100 million C. But where existing fusion reactors have produced heat equivalent to just a few megawatts of power for fractions of a second, ITER should put out 500 megawatts—10 times as much as the external power delivered—for several minutes.

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This photograph shows a car with the words “We Drive Solar” on the door, connected to a charging station. A windmill can be seen in the background.

The Dutch city of Utrecht is embracing vehicle-to-grid technology, an example of which is shown here—an EV connected to a bidirectional charger. The historic Rijn en Zon windmill provides a fitting background for this scene.

We Drive Solar

Hundreds of charging stations for electric vehicles dot Utrecht’s urban landscape in the Netherlands like little electric mushrooms. Unlike those you may have grown accustomed to seeing, many of these stations don’t just charge electric cars—they can also send power from vehicle batteries to the local utility grid for use by homes and businesses.

Debates over the feasibility and value of such vehicle-to-grid technology go back decades. Those arguments are not yet settled. But big automakers like Volkswagen, Nissan, and Hyundai have moved to produce the kinds of cars that can use such bidirectional chargers—alongside similar vehicle-to-home technology, whereby your car can power your house, say, during a blackout, as promoted by Ford with its new F-150 Lightning. Given the rapid uptake of electric vehicles, many people are thinking hard about how to make the best use of all that rolling battery power.

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