Soon to be obsolete?

Nuclear Fusion Won't Save Ukraine

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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Ukrainians have found a new source of hope in their battle with Russia: the invention of a compact nuclear fusion reactor that would undermine the oil wealth fueling their aggressive neighbor's geopolitical ambitions. Unfortunately, their deliverance will probably take much longer than they'd like.

Nuclear fusion has long been one of the most tantalizing problems in modern engineering. The goal is to create a reactor that can generate energy by fusing atoms, rather than splitting them as modern nuclear power plants do. In the 1950s, Soviet scientists led the way with the tokamak, a doughnut-shaped device that established the dominant design for today's reactors. It heats gas to extreme temperatures, employing magnetic fields to contain the resulting plasma and create enough pressure for ions to fuse. The process frees neutrons that pass through the magnetic fields and heat the reactor walls. The heat energy is then converted into electricity.

The trick is to get the reactor to release more energy than it consumes. Since 2006, the European Union, China, India, South Korea, Russia and the U.S. have been collaborating on the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, an enormous structure -- 37 feet high, 64 feet in diameter -- based on the tokamak principle. Technological and bureaucratic problems have plaguedthe multibillion-dollar project, located in the south of France. The new Cold War between Russia and the West might put it on hold permanently.

Now, Thomas McGuire, a scientist at U.S. defense contractor Lockheed Martin, believes he is on the verge of a major breakthrough with a much more compact design that employs a new geometry for plasma confinement. It could be mounted on a large truck, and would be capable of supplying 80,000 homes with power. He thinks he can build, design and test the reactor within a year. Here's how it looks:

Ukrainian media were among the first to pick up the story, which first appeared in Aviation Week. "The whole world will get rid of the oil dependency it acquired early in the 20th Century," Ivan Yakovina wrote on the popular Kiev web site nvua.net. "Many Middle Eastern conflicts will recede into the past." Major oil exporters such as Russia would lose a big source of revenue and influence -- something many Ukrainians would gladly see happen.

The problem with the story, as with many widely publicized breakthroughs, is that it emerged in part because McGuire's project needs funding. The world offers an abundance of scientists who claim they could change the world if only they had more money. Right now, for example, the Russian developer of an HIV vaccine -- "the first one to successfully reach the second stage of clinical trials" -- is giving news conferences so he can raise $5 million to test it on humans. Lockheed has somewhat better chances of finding investors, but its news release about the fusion project is less exuberant that the Aviation Week story, which talked of a "Holy Grail breakthrough" being within McGuire's grasp.

In short, if McGuire's project is the only threat to Russia's oil wealth and its ability to harass Ukraine, Ukrainians might have to wait for decades. Lockheed's better-known products, of the military hardware variety, offer more practical containment options.

Still, the Lockheed story is a reminder that the influence of oil prices on the global economy and geopolitics won't last forever. Physicists are gradually getting closer to cracking the energy problem. Someday our homes and factories will be powered by reactors working on minuscule quantities of fuel derived from sea water and lithium. The necessary breakthroughs require much less funding than wars or gigantic oil and gas extraction projects, and they will yield much more far-reaching results. Even if McGuire's pitch is overambitious, as it should be, it deserves support.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Mark Whitehouse at mwhitehouse1@bloomberg.net