GAITHERSBURG, Md., Nov. 25 (UPI) -- Humanity is fully capable of harnessing fusion -- the process that powers the sun -- to generate electricity in a practical, commercially viable manner before the middle of this century, a government panel reported Monday.
The Department of Energy's Fusion Energy Sciences Advisory Committee endorsed a preliminary report outlining a 35-year development path toward U.S. creation of a fusion power demonstration plant.
The projections call for the demo plant to produce net electricity -- more electricity coming from the plant than fed to it to produce the reaction -- as soon as it goes into operation. In addition, it must show a fusion reactor can stay on-line more than 50 percent of the time, said Robert Goldston, director of the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory and chair of the FESAC's Development Path Panel. Projects in Japan and Europe are expected to compete with the U.S. program, he said.
"When we are done with this, someone else will commercialize fusion," Goldston told the committee. "(The result) should be safe and environmentally attractive, and extrapolate to competitive costs in the U.S. market."
Fusion reactors, a research goal for more than 40 years, would provide a nearly inexhaustible power source. The fusing of two hydrogen atoms into a helium atom releases great quantities of energy while avoiding the greenhouse-gas emissions of fossil fuels and much less radioactive byproducts than nuclear fission.
The catch in harnessing a fusion reaction lies in the prerequisite conditions. A fusion reactor must create temperature and pressure levels that reduce matter to a cloud of atomic nuclei and electrons called plasma -- conditions that are far beyond what physical materials can stand. Current research has focused on using non-material means, such as magnetic fields or laser pulses, to confine, control and sustain the reaction long enough to be useful.
The enormous number of pure science and technology questions facing fusion researchers requires a research portfolio of both magnetic and non-magnetic confinement approaches, the panel report said. U.S. efforts must continue to require the best and most innovative research available, Goldston said.
"The nation and the world have to be sufficiently committed to provide the appropriate funding and resources," Goldston told the committee. Current funding levels, approaching $275 million per year -- which would translate to about $9.6 billion over the life of the project -- fall well short of achieving the project's goal, he told United Press International. By comparison, Congress passed a National Science Foundation reauthorization bill setting spending levels at about $37 billion over the next five years.
Goldston declined to estimate what the report's recommendations could cost. Credible alternatives to existing work also must be pursued, but not necessarily at the same funding levels or development timelines, he said.
The fate of the fiscal year 2003 budget in fusion research remains unclear, said Anne Davies, associate director of Fusion Energy Sciences at DOE. The White House requested $257 million, but House appropriators approved $248 million and their Senate counterparts $259 million, Davies told the committee.
"What we have to do is fund at lowest of all possible levels to avoid overspending (until the budget is finalized," Davies said. "This is causing stress and strain all around the program."
The Bush administration has voiced serious support for expanded fusion research, including remarks earlier this month by John Marburger, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. Any solution that promises energy independence is of great interest, Marburger told a National Research Council committee assessing existing research.
"The promise of fusion energy is too great to ignore, but we also understand this has been true for the past 50 years," Marburger said. "I am convinced there is no foreseeable path to practical fusion without a burning plasma experiment."
A prime question facing U.S. officials is whether or not to join the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor project. The FESAC panel suggests both options are necessary. Early American involvement in ITER will yield more leverage in guiding the program, while a parallel U.S. program could ensure the country maintains a global leadership role in fusion.
Marburger's comments echoed the panel's findings. The country must have access to any burning plasma experiment, he said, while exploring alternative confinement designs would ensure the ability to capitalize on international findings.
The final development path report, including contributions from academic and industrial researchers, should be ready by March of next year, Goldston told the committee.