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Fusion Research and Risk-Taking in the 1970s

Fusion Research and Risk-Taking in the 1970s

Why we ramped up fusion energy research (Part 5 of a 5-part series).

Fusion Research and Risk Taking in the 1970s

Friday, July 21, 2017 - 09:00

Jason Socrates Bardi, Editor

(Inside Science) -- Dennis Whyte of Massachusetts Institute of Technology explains the fusion research in the 1970s.

“So this was, circa, you know, mid‑1970s with the oil crisis, the OPEC crisis. And so this was the beginnings of, you know, there was -- this became rapidly a national security issue because there was concerns about whether or not, you know, were we really going to be able to sustain our energy supply and all those things.

“So that saw an enormous ramp up actually in fusion energy research. It was sort of like an order of magnitude within the span of a few years. And it was interesting. I mean, I was in grade school then, but my colleagues who were around at the time -- I’ll point out another interesting aspect of that time in fusion’s development.

“Because experiments at that point had been at rather small scale, they’d been kind of, you know, let’s take a look at this, there were many different kinds of configurations, and as I said, the tokamak all of a sudden appeared as this one. It’s like, ‘wow, the Russians showed that this really was working like 10 times better than all the other kinds of ones.’

“My colleagues pointed out about the risks that they were willing to take back then because there was an urgency about time. And what does this mean? They took steps about building devices that were a significantly more difficult engineering challenge, making much higher magnetic fields, coming up with heating sources for the plasma that had never really been tried before.

“But because there was that urgency of time, they were willing to take technology risks, actually that today I would argue we don’t take anymore. And this kind of comes back to what we’re arguing for here at MIT, is that it is the ability, for instance, to make superconducting magnetic coils, the ability to make materials, like through things like additive manufacturing,

3-D printing. These kinds of extraordinary advances mean, that in our opinion we need to start taking more technology risks about how we -- because if we -- even though those are engineering risks, we believe that that makes a faster, more attractive product because time in some sense has become one of our biggest enemies in this. We need to start accelerating fusion. That’s why we’re excited in fact by some of these new opportunities.”

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Jason Socrates Bardi is the News Director of the American Institute of Physics and a longtime science writer.