UW News

October 24, 2014

Fusion researchers take a different approach to a heated conversation

UW News

When Thomas Jarboe and Derek Sutherland took their concept for an economically feasible fusion reactor into the public sphere two weeks ago, they expected some negative loud mouths and naysayers. After all, this is fusion physics, a field that seems so inaccessible to most people that it carries a certain mystique and inspires an almost religious fervor to see it succeed or fail.

That’s the playing field that Jarboe, a professor of aeronautics and astronautics, and Sutherland, a graduate student, walked onto when we published a news release about their paper that found their concept for a fusion reactor, when scaled up to the size of a large electrical power plant, would rival costs for a new coal-fired plant with similar electrical output.

Comments on the UW Today story exploded. They also racked up on social sites such as Reddit and Slashdot, not to mention at the bottoms of news stories published about the reactor in NBC NewsEE Times, Gizmag and others.

The natural tendency is to tentatively glance at those comments – often vitriolic and derailing – feel squeamish, then ignore the online conversation threatening to knock down the story and the research it describes.

Sutherland, who brings to the UW his expertise in fusion work from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, instead took a different approach. He engaged some commenters, he says, “to stop some negative Nancys in their tracks.” He posted dozens of replies to commenters who asked about feasibility, costs, comparisons with other concepts – even someone who wondered how Sutherland’s presentation went last week at the world’s most prestigious fusion energy conference.

But why spend so much time writing back to people who can hide behind a nondescript username and make wild accusations?

“To show there’s no wall between us and the public. We’re not hiding anything and we’ll answer any question you throw at us, which is different from other fusion groups that are quite secretive,” Sutherland said. “I think showing that you’re willing to answer questions benefits the people asking them, because you actually get an answer from someone working in the field, and you get an idea of where the public is at as far as the status of fusion research.”


Sutherland said he wasn’t expecting that many comments, plus the dozens of emails and requests for more information he and Jarboe received from researchers around the world.

Though it was exhausting to respond in detail, Sutherland’s engagement arguably kept the usual comment “trolls” from getting the last laugh with careless, zinging remarks, and instead prompted a more intelligent conversation.

“I got some good questions, for sure,” Sutherland said. “I enjoy public outreach and talking with people about what we’re working on – and encouraging everyone else to do the same.”

Wading into public discourse on the topic of nuclear fusion energy can be particularly aggravating. It could be categorized as one of those “hot-button issues,” joining the ranks of climate change and reproductive rights, for instance. It also inspires an emotional reaction in many who are connected to the field, and Sutherland and Jarboe have a hunch about why.

“There are almost religious sects within the fusion field just because of the payout. If you’re the group that figures it out, that’s huge,” Sutherland said.

“With fusion physics, sometimes you gets something in the lab that just looks like magic,” he added. “It’s so foreign from what you’re used to in your everyday life, that when you see something, you think, how on Earth is that happening? Then you understand it scientifically and it starts to make sense.”

The UW team was in the spotlight among its peers and the public after the news began circulating widely.

A week later, Lockheed Martin Corp. announced a renewed effort to create a functional fusion reactor in 10 years. Almost immediately, scientists and academics – including Jarboe – openly criticized the concept, citing no peer-reviewed papers or studies proving the economic feasibility of such a claim.

“Lockheed Martin’s timing was such that people were comparing their concept to ours,” Jarboe said.

“Our concept is based on demonstrated physics,” Sutherland added. “We have published, peer-reviewed articles in respected journals, which they don’t.”

The researchers hope to carve out a niche in the race for fusion power by distancing themselves from the mainstream, expensive concept – the ITER project in France that’s costing billions and absorbing almost 90 percent of the U.S. Department of Energy’s fusion program dollars – and the scattered alternative methods that often don’t have peer-reviewed studies to back up their claims, and rely on multiple untested and unproven technologies working in unison for their concepts to work.

The UW fusion reactor concept.

The UW fusion reactor concept.

A middle road, one that relies on simple engineering and proven physics, is what the UW researchers seek going forward. Their prototype, based on a design called a spheromak, isn’t a new concept, but funding for development shifted to a different design in U.S. labs and the idea was abandoned for some time. Jarboe picked it up again almost 15 years ago and has been working on it ever since.

Sutherland joined him about two years ago, when he took a class with Jarboe that had students working on a project that would become the current prototype. After the class ended, Sutherland and Jarboe continued developing and refining the concept further.

Now, the UW’s success going forward relies on one big assumption: That the method for creating a magnetic field to keep a fusion reaction going can be scaled up to a reactor size. If their next experiment – a $30 million, five-year project – is funded and returns successful results, they say the remaining path toward developing a power-producing reactor is relatively low-risk.