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Murphy's Musings: Editorial

This is the first of what will no doubt be a highly irregular, and equally irreverent, set of editorials on a wide swath of issues. I will likely contribute some ramblings from my thoughts here as the mood strikes me. You may find yourself in agreement with my point of view, or not. Consider this an exercise of US First Amendment rights :-)


Abandoning Our Future?

The genesis of the idea for this editorial began several years ago when a Republican Congress decided, in what seemed to me a completely arbitrary manner, to effectively castrate the US Nuclear Fusion Research effort. The publication of the 2002 Presidential Budget proposal has had at least one good effect: it got me off my proverbial derrière and forced me to put fingers to keyboard and produce this missive. Whether that's good or bad is left as an exercise for the gentle reader.

So, what's the big deal about Fusion? What in the heck is it anyway? To most people, it may be the basis for a fictitious power source on board starships and Babylonian space stations (a side rant: why is it that such reactors often "threaten to blow up"? Fission reactors like Chernobyl and Three Mile Island can and sometimes do blow up; any fusion reactor cannot have this capability! With fusion, it's so hard to get the reaction going that if anything goes wrong, it just fizzles out).

Here in a nutshell is what fusion is. It is (no pun intended) our last, best hope for a clean, ultimately inexpensive, non-polluting, and extremely renewable energy source. Simply put, a fusion reactor will derive energy from combining two hydrogon atoms and producing helium. You get the hydrogen atoms from water. When you do this, there's excess energy left over that can be turned into heat, and eventually electricity. The only byproducts are Helium, a neutral gas that is used to inflate ballons and perform advanced low temperature physics and medical experiments, make your voice sound funny, and is in extremely short supply; and oxygen. Granted this is an idealistic, theoretical description, and most experiments done thus far are not quite so simple.

Up till the mid-1990's, the US was helping in large part to drive an international effort to build a "Tokamak" fusion reactor. There was very close co-operation with scientists and engineers in Europe and Japan. Progress was being made, albeit on a timescale of decades; this timescale is of course anathema to any politician, many of whom cannot see past the next election campaign, and some of whom do not have the best interests of our children at heart.

However, when the US funding for various fusion-related research was cut around 1995 or 1996, the result was catastrophic. Aside from the obvious and massive setback to our efforts to become self-sufficient in our energy requirements (how long will our oil and/or coal last?), there was a real damping effect on research in this area elsewhere in the world. When the largest partner in a research initiative such as the one to build a Fusion Reactor just drops out of the effort completely, this will inevitably have an effect on the remaining parties.

There is no doubt in my mind that humanity will eventually create and perfect a fusion reactor. Whether it's a massive central machine on a par with the largest existing conventional power plants, or whether it's a small localized device that can serve individuals or a small neighborhood is irrelevant; it will happen (but don't expect anything quite as compact as the "Mr. Fusion" unit seen in the first and second "Back to the Future" movies!) However, given the current state of funding in US and World research, I am also convinced that it will not happen here first. Any one of Europe, Japan, or China is likely to be the first beneficiary of this technology. The US will certainly be playing "second fiddle" in this market. Why? Because some politician decided a budget needed to be cut. Did this politician make an informed decision? Almost certainly not. The cynic in us all must wonder if the "it's not in my district" factor played a role.

If the US politicians who were instrumental in getting the Fusion funding cut had fought equally hard to improve the state of research and development in truly renewable energy resources such as Solar (photovoltaic or the furnace-like concept pioneered at Sandia Labs) and Wind, then I could forgive them. But they did not.

So do not be surprised if your children and grandchildren ask you someday why the US has such difficulties with its energy supply, when our counterparts in Europe or Asia have all the energy supplies they can possibly use. They may ask why we're importing such massive amounts of energy, and why we can't generate our own electricity. They will look east and west with saddened and confused eyes, viewing the booming economies of Europe and Asia, while the U.S. slips further into the shadows of a permanent economic recession, and virtual third world status. This will be the likely and frightening scenario in the aftermath of the inevitable energy crisis when supplies of oil, and then coal, run low and then just stop.

As I said in one of my many .signature files for e-mail that I've used over the years, If we opt out of Fusion research, we're giving up on our kids' future. I for one do not want to give up on that future!

- Pat Murphy, March 4th, 2001.

[Powered by Apache!] Patrick P. Murphy
National Radio Astronomy Observatory
Charlottesville, Virginia, USA