Fusion Energy: Hope or Hype?

10/23/2014 03:26 pm ET | Updated Dec 23, 2014
  • David H. Bailey Lawrence Berkeley National Lab (retired) and University of California, Davis
  • Jonathan M. Borwein Laureate Professor of Mathematics, University of Newcastle, Australia

The IPCC Report's Warning

The latest draft edition of the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report bluntly warns that business-as-usual increases in greenhouse-gas emissions will cause "further warming and long-lasting changes" in the Earth's climate system, with increasing likelihood of "severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts for people and ecosystems." Specific dangers include rising sea levels, more frequent extreme temperatures, flooding, drought, harm to marine life and violent conflicts among human societies in the wake of agricultural changes. Delays may have already cost the world society US$8 trillion.

So what can be done? As we argued in a previous blog post, arguably the most cost-effective single measure is simple conservation. One of the present bloggers (Bailey), by making a few modest changes to his home, was able to reduce his electrical consumption by a factor of three, and his bill by a factor of five. The other (Borwein) has a dozen solar panels on his roof in sunny New South Wales, Australia. This has halved his bill, as he sells power back to the grid. Both bloggers are fortunate enough to own Toyota Prius hybrid cars.

But conservation by itself is far from the whole solution. We must convert the entire world economy from its current heavy reliance on coal, oil and other fossil fuels to completely non-carbon "green" energy sources. The increased supply of hydrocarbons from fracking, while unhelpful ecologically, is a reality.

Current Green-Energy Prospects

One bright spot in the green-energy picture is the continuing dramatic drop in prices for solar photovoltaic panels, with prices dropping by more than a factor of two in the U.S., and even more elsewhere.

But solar can only be part of the energy picture, since, at present, there is no viable industrial-scale technology to store large amounts of solar photovoltaic energy to cover nighttime and cloudy days. This in an issue even in sunny parts of the world. The same is true for wind energy. Nuclear-fission reactors are an option, but given the political reality in the wake of the Fukushima reactor accident (see our previous blog post on how poorly relative risk is addressed), it is unlikely that there will be much increase in the numbers of such systems for the foreseeable future.

Thus the world community badly needs some other industrial-scale green-energy source, one that is not dependent on vagaries of location, climate or weather and is relatively safe and clean.

Fusion Energy

Nuclear fusion is the energy that powers the Sun. Isotopes of hydrogen (typically hydrogen-2 or hydrogen-3 -- that is, a proton with one or two neutrons, respectively) combine to yield helium and, in the process, release considerable energy. Heavier nuclei can fuse as well, although in stars these reactions normally occur only during supernova explosions.

If, as was tried since shortly after World War II, we could harness nuclear fusion, then we would truly win the green-energy jackpot. First of all, the fuel for a hydrogen-to-helium nuclear-fusion reactor is free -- nothing more than ordinary tap water. A single small water pipe coming into a nuclear-fusion plant could provide all the fuel needed for industrial-scale power generation. Secondly, compared with nuclear fission, nuclear fusion is quite clean, with virtually no radioactive byproducts or waste. In short, if we can tame fusion, our future green-energy problem will be solved.

The problem is that nuclear fusion normally only occurs at extremely high temperatures (millions of degrees), which are needed to overcome the "Coulomb barrier," namely the huge electrical repulsion between positively charged hydrogen nuclei. Thus the challenge has been how to corral the fuel material without touching a container, heat it quickly to enormous temperatures, and keep it under control long enough for nuclear reactions to take place. (This is the reason that H-bombs have fission triggers.)

Scientists have been working on taming fusion for decades. At present, the two most common approaches are tokamak reactors, in which the reaction chamber is shaped like a torus and the nuclear material is heated and confined by magnetic force (see, for example, the ITER project, a multinational research reactor under construction in France), and inertial fusion reactors, in which an array of high-powered lasers aimed at a small pellet of hydrogen isotopes heats it, in a tiny fraction of a second, to millions of degrees and initiates nuclear reactions (see, for example, the National Ignition Facility in Livermore, California).

Billions of dollars have been spent on developing both of these schemes, mostly by large government-funded laboratories. The bottom line is that while significant progress has been made in both approaches, even the leaders of these projects acknowledge that we are decades away from commercial realization.

Lockheed Martin Announcement

Thus it was with great interest that we read this week of two claimed breakthroughs in the area of fusion energy. The first such claim, by the U.S. aerospace company Lockheed Martin, announced a "technological breakthrough" in developing power based on nuclear fusion. A team has been working on the project in Lockheed's "Skunk Works" for about four years.

The firm's current target is to build a 100-megawatt nuclear-fusion reactor only about two meters by three meters (seven feet by 10 feet) in size -- that is, small enough to fit on the back of a large truck. These dimensions are smaller, by a factor of 10, than, say, the ITER reactor under construction in France. They claim that the first reactors of this design could be ready for commercial use in just 10 years.

Sadly, no technical details are yet available, so the scientific community has no way of assessing the merits of their approach. In a Science article, project leader Daniel Clery says that their prototype device uses "cusp confinement," a magnetic-trap design explored in the 1960s and '70s but then abandoned. Steven Cowley, director of the Fulham Centre for Fusion Energy in the UK, speculates that Lockheed Martin might be using a technique called a field-reversed configuration (FRC), in which helical magnetic fields are induced in the circulating plasma so that it heats itself. But until more details are known, there is no way to know for sure.

In any event, if the project is successful, Lockheed Martin could be a world leader in commercial energy systems in the future.

"Cold Fusion" Again?

In March 1989, Pons and Fleishmann of the University of Utah made a big splash with claims that they had achieved nuclear fusion in a simple tabletop apparatus, which quickly was termed cold fusion. Alas, scientists at other laboratories tried but failed to reproduce the claimed effects. As a result, the two scientists (who never admitted defeat) and their project quickly became a poster case for hasty, jump-the-gun, fringe science.

But a small community of researchers has continued to pursue the idea (now known as low-energy nuclear reactions, or LENR), saying that they too occasionally see heating and other effects not explainable through conventional chemistry. These researchers and their claims are dismissed by most physicists and other scientific researchers, who typically regard the topic as pseudoscience.

Stepping into this fray in 2011, an Italian entrepreneur named Andrea Rossi claimed that he and his research staff had developed a new LENR process, which they called the Energy Catalyzer, or E-Cat for short, which produced significant amounts of heat energy. However, Rossi was unable to obtain a patent from either the European Patent Office or the U.S. Patent Office, who judged the proposal as too speculative. At the present time, intellectual-property rights are owned by Industrial Heat LLC of Raleigh, North Carolina.

In May 2013, a team of Italian and Swedish scientists published a technical paper describing an experimental analysis of the E-Cat system. This attracted significant attention and criticism.

Latest E-Cat Results

Now the same team of Italian and Swedish researchers (which does not include Rossi himself) has released a new paper, entitled "Observation of abundant heat production from a reactor device and of isotopic changes in the fuel." This paper describes a much more sophisticated experiment, with better equipment, and claims substantial power output, up to 3.6 times more than the electrical energy input to the system. The experiment was performed not at Rossi's facilities but at an independent laboratory in Lugano, Switzerland.

The most intriguing results in the paper are the analyses of the "fuel" before the experiment and the "ash" after the experiment, which were performed using several different types of high-tech equipment (X-ray photoelectron spectroscopy, dispersive X-ray spectroscopy, secondary ion mass spectrometry and inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry). The researchers found that there was an "isotopic shift" in the materials.

In particular, the team found that lithium-7 (i.e., nuclei with three protons and four neutrons, the most common variety of lithium in nature) changed into lithium-6 (i.e., atoms with three protons and three neutrons), and that nickel-58 and nickel-60 (i.e., nuclei with 28 protons and 30 or 32 neutrons, respectively) changed to nickel-62 (i.e., atoms with 28 protons and 34 neutrons). Here, for example, are the results from the secondary ion mass spectrometry analysis:

Input "fuel" Output "ash"
Lithium-6 8.6% 92.1%
Lithium-7 91.4% 7.9%
Nickel-58 67.0% 0.8%
Nickel-60 26.3% 0.5%
Nickel-61 1.9% 0.0%
Nickel-62 3.9% 98.7%

Such isotopic changes can only occur if real nuclear reactions are taking place -- they do not take place with any ordinary chemistry as we understand it.

Yet how this is happening is a huge mystery. The energy in the experimental apparatus seems nowhere near high enough to trigger true fusion reactions, and, what's more, no radiation or radioactive byproducts were observed. As the report's authors lamented, "It is certainly most unsatisfying that these results so far have no convincing theoretical explanation," although they argue that "the experimental results cannot be dismissed or ignored just because of lack of theoretical understanding."

It should be emphasized that neither of the team's papers have passed peer review, although they have been submitted to journals. And there have not been any completely independent confirmations by other teams of researchers at other laboratories. A detailed critique of the latest paper has been released by Michael McKubre of SRI, a well-qualified researcher who has also worked on LENR experiments.


Controlled fusion is a very attractive option for future green-power generation. But is there any realistic hope of real-world fusion energy within 10 or 15 years? The Lockheed Martin team seems to think so, although in the current vacuum of information, it is hard for the larger scientific community to assess their work. We await more technical details!

With regards to the Italian-Swedish team's latest report, we are seemingly left with three stark and perplexing choices:

  1. Rossi and his team are engaged in a conspiracy of fraud. (We are reminded of Ben Franklin's skeptical maxim from Poor Richard's Almanack: "Three may keep a secret, if two of them are dead." We are also reminded of G.H. Hardy's assessment of Ramanujan's mathematical claims in the letter he sent from India in 1913: "Is a fraud of genius more probable than an unknown mathematician of genius?" Hardy's answer was "no.")
  2. Rossi and his team have made multiple, serious experimental or data-analysis errors that invalidate their key findings. (It seems hard to argue with their key results, yet in the last two years, evidence for faster-than-light neutrinos was announced and then found to be flawed, and evidence for the early universe's inflation was trumpeted and then subsequently acknowledged to possibly be due to dust in the Milky Way, pending better data.)
  3. Rossi and his team have made a very important discovery that may revolutionize the production of energy worldwide. (But how can we square these results with known nuclear physics?)

The present bloggers are as concerned as anyone that the Italian-Swedish experiment does not have any solid theoretical foundation, has no detectable radiation, and in fact seemingly contravenes conventional physics. We also caution against anyone taking these results too seriously until they can be replicated by completely independent research teams. We are aware that Rossi has a somewhat checkered past, although so did the mathematician Louis de Brange until he proved the Bieberbach conjecture in 1985.

But, on the other hand, we see no point in rejecting, much less vilifying, a new research result simply because it departs from mainstream thinking, provided that 1) it is performed by well-qualified researchers using reasonably sound methodologies and up-to-date equipment, 2) it is documented in sufficient detail to permit third parties to reproduce the results, and 3) the researchers have at least submitted their work for proper peer review.

So we will continue to monitor both of these developments. At the very least, they are certain to make an interesting chapter in the sociology of science.