(March 2017) The forum agenda kicked off with an expert panel entitled “Mankind Projects”, which focused mainly on the question of how public-private partnerships can be supported in the area of fusion research/technology and how management of “big science” initiatives can be improved. Participating in the discussion were: Prof. Dr. Robert Wolf, head of the Stellarator Heating and Optimization division at the Max Planck Institute for Plasma Physics in Greifswald, Germany; Greg Waltman from the G1 Quantum Fund in New York, a broker for investments in fusion technologies; Dr. Philipp Lengsfeld, member of the German parliament (Bundestag) and the Bundestag Committee on Education, Research and Technology; and Ariel Davis from i3 Israel Innovation Interface, a technology start-up platform based in Tel Aviv.
The sun as role model
Prof. Wolf began with an explanation of atomic fusion, a process by which atomic nuclei are fused to generate energy. The sun itself provides the model example of nature’s fusion reactor – constantly fusing hydrogen nuclei to form helium, and generating the solar radiation that makes life on our planet possible. Wolf pointed out that fusion reactors here on Earth use the hydrogen isotopes deuterium and tritium because these offer the highest rate of reaction. One gram of fuel would be enough to generate 90,000 kilowatt hours of energy in a power plant, the equivalent of the combustion heat generated by 11 tonnes of coal.
Currently the international scientific community is pursuing development of several types of fusion reactors. Two of these types – tokamaks and stellarators – are based on the magnetic confinement principle. The Max Planck Institute for Plasma Physics is the only fusion R&D center worldwide in which both reactor types are being investigated: the tokamak “ASDEX Upgrade” in Munich-Garching and the stellarator “Wendelstein 7-X” in Greifswald on Germany’s Baltic coast. According to Wolf, the Wendelstein 7-X, which is the world’s largest stellarator fusion facility, has generated over 2,000 plasma pulses since December 2015. Dr. Wolf described the work involved as a complex interplay between physics and technology. The next development steps, said Dr. Wolf, are outlined in the European Fusion Roadmap. Among the projects is “Modeling and Optimization of Gyrokinetic Turbulence in Stellarators”, which involves numerical investigations into microturbulences in three-dimensional magnetic fields, as well as turbulence optimization and statistics.
Regarding the ITER tokomak currently under construction in France, Wolf stressed the significance of the “blanket test” modules which are used to shield the inner wall of the plasma container. Wolf pointed out that China, although a member of the ITER consortium, is currently moving fast to develop its own fusion reactor technology.
Philipp Lengsfeld, member of Germany’s Bundestag and responsible for science and research policy within the CDU/CSU party, spoke about expectations on the part of policy-makers with regard to fusion technology. Lengsfeld, a physicist himself who studied plasma physics in Manchester, counts himself among the very few Bundestag members who have any detailed knowledge of fusion technology or similar areas of research. So few “players” translates into very little leverage when it comes to influencing research policy in the Bundestag. Adding to the challenge, said Lengsfeld, is the fact that progress in fusion R&D happens on a much longer time scale than Germany’s 4-year legislative period.
A more positive attitude towards fusion
To illustrate the general public’s level of familiarity with fusion technology, Lengsfeld recalled an exchange in his high school physics class in East Berlin. When the subject turned to atomic fusion, a student asked why the technology worked in the hydrogen bomb, but didn’t work in power plants. The teacher, said Lengsfeld, did not have an answer to the question. Lengsfeld spoke about the strong opposition to fusion technology among Germany’s policy makers, especially those in energy policy. They object, in principle, to atomic energy production, but are also critical of the long drawn-out process. The notion that fusion will be a reality in 30 years, said Lengsfeld, is something we’ve been hearing for the past 50 years. Lengsfeld therefore stressed the need – in addition to scientific excellence (“cutting-edge results”) – for an open and honest public discussion on what is realistically achievable. The ITER project, insisted Lengsfeld, needs better governance so that it doesn’t remain classified as a non-feasible “monster project”. Nonetheless, Lengsfeld reported that the attitude towards atomic fusion has begun to change, mainly due to the recent successes in Greifswald.
Ariel Davis spoke about the highly integrated and effective start-up ecosystem in Israel, pointing out the competitive advantage enjoyed by Israeli companies, which are free to act more quickly and cost-effectively on the market. Davis’ company i3 seeks to bring young technology companies together with public funding and venture capital – a process aided in part by tax incentives. Davis explained the significance of the interface between government and the private sector, which, he said, functions particularly well in Israel’s defense sector, as exemplified by development of the “Iron Dome” mobile air defense system. On the ITER front, Davis also expects increasing participation on the part of the private sector, which has a track record of being able to move faster when it comes to R&D.
Greg Waltman reported on the investments in fusion technology currently being brokered by his New York-based company G1 Quantum Fund, which Waltman founded six years ago. According to Waltman, G1 currently employs 100 employees and is growing. During the panel discussion, Waltman emphasized the importance of understanding market mechanisms. For fusion technologies, this means clear and up-front communication on economic/financial factors, including return on investment. According to Waltman competition is stiff in fusion technology and established players are reluctant to cede market share – a factor that should also be considered by Silicon Valley investors looking to enter the fray.
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