It’s a scandal that fusion has remained ‘thirty years away’ for almost a lifetime, despite billions in spending.
But it’s not an unprecedented scandal. At the start of the twentieth centuries, the first impressive airship flight was nearly simultaneous with the Wright Brothers’ first flight. Very quickly, it was demonstrated that the physics would never favor lighter-than-air flight. Yet it was airships that captured the lion’s share of government funding in the richest and most advanced countries of the day – Britain, Germany and the US – until the imminence of World War II finally concentrated official minds. Despite colossal expense and colossal disasters, the response to the latest fiasco was always ‘give us more money, so we can build an even bigger dinosaur’. With all the advantages that modern materials give us, airships have remained an impracticable mode of transport.
We see a very similar story with fusion. Government funding has poured into ever-larger magnetic bottles in Europe, and ever-larger laser arrays in America, even though many of the scientists working on these projects know that they are futile, riddled with unsolved problems.
Meanwhile… heavier than air flight of course went from strength to strength, and it was largely thanks to development efforts funded by a few rich and farsighted men in Britain and America that Germany’s Luftwaffe did not start the war with an insuperable advantage.
Now we have a plethora of new fusion ventures. I am not talking about ‘cold fusion’. Nor is ‘new’ quite the right word: the basic physics of most methods was worked out decades ago, but ignored either because it did not have weapons applications, or from sheer inertia.
I will be discussing the the new alternatives in detail in future posts. But for now, let me note a second lesson from history. As World War II progressed, and the danger that the Allies would lose remained real, the Americans were so determined to get the atom bomb before Hitler that they explored not one but many methods of obtaining material sufficiently fissile for a warhead. Several of those methods ultimately succeeded.
The race for fusion is hotting up. And whoever wins, the healthy competition today is at last coming to resemble the nimbleness of the Manhattan Project rather than the rigidity of the airship makers (puns fully intended).