Congress is in the process of finalizing the budget for the Department of Energy’s Office of Science, a governmental agency responsible for funding scientific research projects in universities and national laboratories across the country. Though the overall budget for 2013 increased to nearly 5 billion dollars (a 2.4% growth from the 2012 allocation), several key funding shifts are evident. Clean energy research is the clear winner, while domestic programs in fusion energy and nuclear physics will experience significant funding cuts.
There are countless items of interest hidden among the DOE’s itemized budget, especially given that the budget highlights alone encompass 91 pages. However, one of the most intriguing decisions is the choice to shutter MIT-based fusion experiment Alcator C-Mod in 2013.
Alcator C-Mod consists of a doughnut-shaped vacuum chamber called a tokamak, which uses powerful magnetic fields to direct and shape high-energy plasma (a soup of energetic ions not to be confused with blood plasma). With the right experimental conditions, researchers hope to design a tokamak capable of heating the plasma inside to temperatures hotter than the center of the Sun. At such high temperatures, ions within the plasma would fuse together, releasing a tremendous amount of energy. A cadre of scientists and businessmen believe that if fusion technology is perfected, fusion reactors may provide help solve the world’s energy problems.
Alcator C-Mod is one of only three working tokamaks in the United States (the others include NSTX at Princeton University and DIII-D at General Atomics in San Diego). While these tokamaks are far from working fusion reactors, they serve as useful testing grounds for new theories and technology. Tokamaks in many ways represent the laboratory archetype for wannabe mad scientists. Imagine whirring building-sized machines surrounded a dense forest of cables and instruments, all monitored by a mission control room that wouldn’t seem out of place at NASA.
It is certainly not uncommon for government experiments to have their funding pulled. Yet Alcator C-Mod is a unique and extensive project that has produced a plethora of papers and new findings. To anyone in the plasma physics community, this closure represents a great loss. To some, the decision may be particularly bitter medicine because the funding that would normally go to the upkeep of Alcator C-Mod is being redirected out of the country to the international fusion project ITER (International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor).
All in all, the budget allotment for fusion sciences will decrease by less than 1% in the next year, but the 150 million dollar contribution to ITER renders the roughly 18 million dollar budget for Alcator C-Mod untenable. ITER, located in the South of France, is the flagship program for fusion science worldwide. Under President George W. Bush, the United States committed to paying for 9% of the project, a gigantic tokamak over 30 meters tall. Projected costs for the construction of ITER top 20 billion dollars over the next seven years, which leaves the total American contribution at nearly 2 billion dollars. Pro rating this amount leaves the United States responsible for contributing nearly 300 million dollars a year on average until 2019.
Given that the total DOE fusion energy budget for next year is under 400 million, domestic fusion programs may soon be seeing more drastic cuts. With the government handling a severe budget crisis, it is safe to say that large funding increases for scientific research are not on the horizon. This means that the American ITER contribution will slowly consume the entire domestic budget for fusion research and might even dip into funds intended for high-energy physics experiments.
The arguments for a strong domestic fusion program generally focus on the future need for scientists and engineers who can build, operate, and improve fusion reactors after the technology has been proven successful. Researchers hope that ITER will pave the way for fusion power plants that will produce more energy than they require. Exporting fusion research overseas at the expense of domestic programs seems to imply that the US government doesn’t think the ITER project will yield practical, economic benefits in the form of working fusion reactors. The administration is essentially making a twenty-year bet that ITER’s findings will not be enough to change our current energy landscape. Other countries like Korea and Japan are more optimistic – they contribute to ITER while maintaining their domestic programs as well.
Jen Sierchio, attends physics graduate school at MIT where she works on Alcator C-Mod. With her thesis project losing funding, she’ll be forced to switch fields or attempt to find a position at one of the other two tokamaks in the country. But even if she is able to relocate, she worries the same funding cuts might once again thwart her thesis goals. As the US gives more and more to ITER, scientists worry domestic funding for fusion research is still very much at risk.
Unlike many types of research that can be performed with a few beakers of chemicals and standard lab equipment found at any university, planning a tokamak experiment from scratch takes years of effort and millions upon millions of dollars. If more graduate students like Sierchio are turned away, the field may be setback a decade when it comes to educating the next generation. “No doubt that the proposed budget – and the current budget trajectory would make it harder for students to participate and hard for the U.S. to build the workforce that it needs to exploit ITER and later to build a fusion economy. This is perhaps the greatest problem with path we’re on,” Greenwald told Science.
The Save Alcator C-Mod Team has helped start a website and petition to save their beloved experiment.