Congress Supercharges Funding for Fusion Energy Technology

Funding jumps by more than $100 million for the potentially emissions-free energy source.

The International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor research team displays a model of its planned fusion reactor at its headquarters in south France. The reactor is expected to go online in 2027.
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Chalk one up for fusion.

Physicists from France to California rejoiced this week over Congress's new spending bill, which would increase funding for fusion-energy research by more than $100 million over last year.

The bill, which the House passed Wednesday and is expected to pass the Senate and signed by President Barack Obama in the coming days, actually allocates about $47 million more than the president initially requested for research into the new, potentially limitless and emission-free energy source.

Totaling just over a half-billion dollars, the bill sends about $200 million to an international research project based in France, and $305 million to domestic research programs – effectively restoring cuts incurred over the past two years.

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"This was a big relief," said Stewart Prager, director of the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, which lost "tens" of researchers to "voluntary separation programs" it was forced to institute last year.

"The administration budget was quite crippling to the ongoing research program, and this restores it to what it was in fiscal year 2012, which is great," Prager added.

Whereas nuclear reactors today generate electricity through fission – or splitting atoms – fusion reactors would do essentially the opposite: make two atoms into one. It's a process used by the Sun and other stars to generate heat and light, but scientists believe they can replicate the reaction here on Earth by harvesting a pair of exotic sounding particles – deuterium and tritium – from two abundant resources: seawater and relatively small amounts of lithium.

In other words, way more power, without dangerous radiation or the burning of fossil fuels.

"Fusion provides limitless clean energy," said Miklos Porkolab, director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Plasma Science and Fusion Center. "There's no pollution coming out of it. There's no weapons applications. The fuel is available to all nations."

Scientists have achieved fusion in small research reactors since the 1990s – the most recent success was in July 2010, when the Joint European Torus in the United Kingdom put out 10 megawatts for 0.5 seconds. Commercial fusion, though, is still decades away.

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"There's that old trope that fusion is 30 years in the future and always will be," said Francois Waelbroeck, director of the Institute for Fusion Studies at the University of Texas. "That's true if the budgets don't keep up. Every study that has been done looking at this question has concluded that if you really go all out with funding, it can be done in 35 years."

In fact, it could be even sooner.

The next big project is in south France – the recipient of much of the fusion allocation in Congress' appropriations bill. The International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, or ITER, plans to build a larger research reactor by 2027, which it says could lead "fusion into its industrial era," with subsequent reactors "putting power into the grid as early as 2040."

For now, though, fusion program directors are focusing more on the short-term, which means getting programs back up and running and making sure the funding keeps flowing.

"The [new] budget keeps things healthy; it doesn't solve the problem for [next year] and beyond," Prager, of Princeton, said. "In the fusion program, we need a longer range plan, longer range stability, so that the research environment is less volatile than it has been."

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