Nuclear fusion and the "three years law" of scientific research
As part of a mini-series on nuclear fusion on the Cassandra blog, here is a brief discussion on the status of the approach to fusion based on hot plasmas; the so called "tokamak" configuration. This technology is progressing at a very slow rate: the first energy producing plants are planned to appear not earlier than in several decades from now (if ever). Given the situation, we may be making a big communication mistake if we present this approach as the solution to the world's energy problems.
There is an unwritten law that rules industrial research and development. It says that you have to demonstrate that your idea can work in no more than three years. In exceptional cases, five years may be the limit but, normally, no industrial research project lasts more than that. If a project produces no useful results in five years, then there are good chances that it never will.
There are several examples of the "three years law" (or, maybe, "five years law"). Think of the Wright brothers: their first glider flew in 1900 and three years later they flew the first engine powered plane in the world. Think of nuclear fission; the Manhattan project was active from 1942 to 1946 and in less than three years it created both the first nuclear bomb and the first nuclear reactor. The law seems to hold independently of the ambition of the project: whether it is a bicycle or a spaceship, it has to show that it can work in a few years.
Conversely, consider the "War on Cancer", launched in 1971 by President Nixon. In more than 40 years, a lot of progress has been made in basic research on cancer, sure, but the war has not been won. Think of hydrogen as fuel. The idea of a "hydrogen based economy" goes back to the 1960s but, so far, nothing practical exists on the market. This kind of long range projects can generate good basic research, but it can hardly produce practical results.
So, let's examine the idea of controlled nuclear fusion in this light. We are still working, mostly, on the "tokamak" concept, proposed in the 1950s by the Russian physicist Andrei Sakharov. There is no doubt that tokamaks can produce nuclear fusions but, in more than 50 years of work, we haven't been able to reach the "breakeven" point, that is the condition when the ratio of the energy produced by fusion is the same as the energy needed to keep the plasma in steady state. The European ITER project on nuclear fusion is supposed to reach and exceed that point when it becomes fully operational in 2026, that is about 20 years after the start of the project. The whole ITER project should last until 2038. These are anomalously long times for an industrial research project. Consider also that, even if ITER attains its goals, we are orders of magnitude away from a device actually able to produce useful energy.
Now, of course, it is impossible to say that tokamaks will never produce useful energy. But look at the figure at the beginning of this post. Doesn't it make you wonder? It looks like we are just making the same machine bigger and bigger, in the hope that, eventually, it will work. Think if a 747 were to look just like the Wright plane, just bigger. It is not impossible to argue that we have taken a no way out road with tokamaks, as discussed in a recent article by Jean Pierre Petit. Other physicists, such as Luigi Sertorio, are also very skeptical about these nuclear fusion efforts.
In short, the ITER project is not an industrial research project: it is a basic research project. Of course, there is nothing wrong in studying nuclear fusion, very high temperature plasmas, and the like. It is good science performed by competent people and we can learn a lot of useful things from this work. And, in doing that, we might even find the way to obtain useful energy. But we can't think of ITER (or similar fusion research efforts) as something directly aimed at solving the world's energy problems.
The problem is that few people may know the "three years law" of scientific research, but there are limits to human patience. From the dawn of the "nuclear age," people have been told that science can solve the world's energy problems with nuclear fusion. But they haven't seen anything that works in 50 years. Now, they are being told that they have to wait for several decades more. At this point, it is not surprising that we see so many people seeking refuge in pseudoscience and in the outright scams of the recent craze on "cold fusion." That's a disaster, because people become easily convinced that there are miracle solutions to the energy problem and they tend to neglect technologies, such as renewables, that are not so glamorous but that do produce energy. But there are no miracles in science and we must do with what we have now.