Monday, February 10, 2014

10 Years Ago at Aspen

10 Years Ago at Aspen

Marty Hoffert organized an influential and optimistic review:


Marty and co-authors (including myself) concluded, "that a broad range of intensive research and development is urgently needed to produce technological options that can allow both climate stabilization and economic development."

It was an exciting time. Recall also the growing importance of U.S. energy security issues. Each year, the U.S. was importing more and more of its energy abroad, and we were involved with serious conflicts in the Middle East.

Advanced science and technology promised a long-term solution to our energy and climate needs, but maybe also a short-term solution. Marty and Ken Caldeira organized a terrific workshop at the Aspen Global Change Institute, entitled Energy Options and Paths to Climate Stabilization (July 6-11, 2003).

I was invited to speak about Fusion Energy: Pipe Dream or Panacea. My lecture was recorded and available online: [Mauel, Fusion Energy Lecture (July 2003)].

What has changed in 10 years?

First, the U.S. energy security has improved due to advances in tight oil and shale gas production.

Second, our optimism about NIF and ITER has proven to be over stated. Initial experiments during the NIF ignition campaign did not achieved hoped-for results. Serious cost and schedule delays have side tracked an European "fast track" to fusion energy.

Nevertheless, fusion science and technical know-how continues to advance. Although tokamak instabilities and localized heat flux issues have turned out to be more challenging than expected, ITER construction progresses. Nonlinear laser-plasma interactions have become better understood, but point to the need for higher driver energies to achieve ignition. Smaller research programs have been terminated due to budget cuts imposed to pay for ITER cost over escalations, but even these smaller programs are making progress.  (The MIT-Columbia LDX experiments were more successful than expected, but the U.S. DOE narrowed configuration optimization and redirected research overseas.)

Somehow, I remain optimistic and enthusiastic about fusion energy science research, although 10 years wiser than during my 2003 lecture at Aspen. Fusion inspires innovation and discovery because we need to control ionized matter at 200 million degrees. Very exciting. Someday, these innovations and discoveries will make fusion energy commercially viable, probably, in a configuration that few recognize today.