Tuesday, July 26, 2005

On The Economics Of Fusion

I was poking around the Fire Place news and happened across this Nature story about ITER. One interesting bit buried near the end:
Partly because of better modelling, most researchers agree that the smaller, cheaper ITER can be made to work. "In Europe we're optimistic about the future of fusion," says David Ward, a plasma physicist who studies the economics of fusion for the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority in Culham near Oxford. "But the big step will be going from where we are to ITER. Ward says that the reactor will provide definitive proof of the value of fusion power, as well as offering technical information about how to build a firstgeneration commercial reactor.

Dorland agrees, with one caveat: "I think that ITER will work, but I'm willing to bet you $100 that another fusion device will get more power out before it does," he says. There are perhaps half-a-dozen designs that might catch up with tokamaks, but the most impressive to date, he says, is a variation of the tokamak called the spherical torus. This more closely resembles a pitted apple than a doughnut, a shape that allows it to create a sharp boundary between the hot hydrogen plasma and the outer wall of the reactor and squeeze the plasma more tightly. Such a design might achieve a burning fusion reaction with less fuss than the more cumbersome tokamak, he says.

But because ITER is a government project, it will get built anyway, costs be damned. I'm in favor of fusion research, but there's serious reasons to question the economics of ITER.

Incidentally, David Ward has an interesting PDF available discussing the economics of a proposed fusion reactor, in which he projects such a device to be cheaper than photovoltaics and about the same as wind farms.