This article was last modified on July 25, 2017.

Is Fusion Possible? An Interview with Physicist Mark Henderson

Be prepared to have your mind blown.

At age 14, Mark Henderson first learned about nuclear fusion and instantly decided he would dedicate his life to making it happen. Henderson acquired a PhD in Plasma Physics in 1991 with his thesis on the design, construction and initial operation of the Compact Auburn Torsatron. He performed a Post Doctorate at the Center for Research in Plasma Physics (CRPP) in Lausanne, Switzerland participating in the design, construction and operation of the microwave heating system on the variable configuration tokamak (TCV) at the Swiss Plasma Center. Mark became a permanent scientist at TCV working on the microwave system and associated experiments. In 2004, he proposed an alternative design for the ITER microwave launching antenna, which was accepted. In 2008, he left CRPP for ITER in the south of France to be in charge of the development of microwave plasma-heating system.

Mila Aung-Thwin is a documentary filmmaker based in Canada and the brains behind Eye Steel Film. Since 2001, he has produced and/or directed a great many films, beginning with a film about rival “squeegee” gangs. Of his films, many involve Canadian-Chinese cross-cultural themes, and this year he has not one but two documentaries screening at the Fantasia International Film Festival. “Tokyo Idols”, a look at the culture of young female singers in Japan, and “Let There Be Light”, an exploration of the current state of fusion research.

As part of Fantasia, I had the distinct pleasure of chatting with Mila and Mark about “Let There Be Light” and trying to wrap my head around this science of the future.

GS: I felt that the film is very optimistic in its approach, suggesting that fusion is inevitable. Was this intentional?

MAT: I think I went into it with a kind of skepticism. I wasn’t sure about fusion at first. But once I learned about what they were trying to achieve, I got really into it. Of those I met and interviewed, many of them were tired (because of how long they had struggled). But upon asking why they got into the field, everyone had the same sort of altruistic drive. When looking for what inspired them in the first place, I found this to be very universal. I was trying to get past the “grind” of doing this for decades and decades.

MH: We in the fusion community have always said that fusion is just down the road another 30 or 40 years. And in reality it’s still going to be a while. It will take time to get this thing on the grid. I would be cautious with the word “optimism”, in my personal view. I’m optimistic in the sense that fusion will be here one day, but it’s going to take a while. I think Mila portrayed that accurately. It’s a huge challenge.

GS: The American government is notorious for not funding science. Are we seeing this same thing around the world, or is America unique in this regard?

MH: I did my bachelors degree and masters degree in the United States in the late 1980s, early 1990s. And even back then, for those working on fusion, you never really knew if you were going to find a job. I had the opportunity to work in Switzerland in 1992 and I jumped at it, because fusion funding has always been really iffy in the US. It’s even more iffy now. The US has always taken something a silent rollercoaster ride when it comes to funding, whether it be fusion or science in general. Look at NASA, which had its heydays but also had some very low points. Other countries are adopting a more long-term approach. China, Korea and Japan are becoming impatient in the sense that I think they are going to be bypassing western civilization in these areas. They’re putting more money into this research. As an American-slash-European, I’m happy that somebody on this planet is pushing it but I’m frustrated that the US and Europe aren’t leading the way.

MAT: I think that America tends to fund science locally, though not very consistently as Mark points out. But it appears to me the thing that scares them off is working on big group projects. They don’t join with other countries, which is really inefficient. Europe is more embracing of the idea that everyone should pitch in a little bit. The sense I received in America over and over again is that they would rather do things themselves with their own contractors. There’s something about really big projects where it’s better if everyone just pools their resources. It’s ludicrous that each country on earth would have to build its own ITER for $20 billion when they could work together and share their discoveries and mistakes. In one sense, it’s just more economical.

GS: You’re talking about pooling resources, which makes sense. We also have people split on how to get to fusion – some, like Mark, work on the tokamak. Others see the stellarator as the way to go. Should we all be pursuing the same path?

MH: I was originally a die-hard stellarator guy. But then I switched over to tokamak. The two primary fusion machines in Europe are ITER, a tokamak, in France and the Wendelstein 7-X stellarator in Germany. They both have their positives and negatives. There are also some wild card approaches like Michel Laberge with General Fusion in Canada, who is attempting magnetized target fusion. There is the potential that those types of devices could achieve fusion. It’s a long shot in my opinion, but we don’t know everything about fusion so it makes sense to invest in a variety of machines. I’m convinced that the tokamak is going to be the short-term solution. I could talk for 30 minutes about why I think that, but that would be boring. Regardless, I think a multi-directional attack on fusion is the way to go. Compare this with the Apollo project in the 1960s. Adjusted for inflation, that project probably cost $120 billion and they were literally throwing money at scientists trying to find solutions. This wasn’t wasted money, it was invested money. And that’s what we need to be doing now with fusion, but we’re not.

GS: Continuing the Apollo analogy, maybe what we need is a competitive spirit; a new USSR to get people motivated?

MAT: In the film, we have two wildly different approaches. There is General Fusion and then there’s ITER. Completely different financing models, approaches and time frames. But what I found quite interesting was how all the labs around the world share information with each other. The private labs, the public labs, the universities. They’re all learning from each other. So there is a competitive component, because everybody wants to be first, but if someone else achieves fusion that’s amazing. Across the board, everyone wanted to see fusion in their lifetime whether it was from their machine or not. I went in to the project thinking that this was like a modern Edison versus Tesla dynamic, but it’s not really like that. So there are different machines competing, but also learning from each other.

GS: The film is very inspirational, but it’s almost in a totally different world than the one I live in. In the United States, it’s a constant debate between fossil fuels and solar… we need to transition past this before fusion even shows up on the radar.

MAT: The energy argument is big, but one interesting thing about making this film is how deeply I got to understand fossil fuels and not simply because of “Big Oil” lobbies or anything like that. Fossil fuels are efficient, energy-dense, and there’s no one simple way to replace them. Especially at the same price. So I look at it, see how deeply invested we are in fossil fuels, and think it might take something miraculous like fusion to dig ourselves out of that way of thinking. All the scientists I spoke to would love to have solar and wind take over, but there’s just such a disparity compared to our reliance on fossil fuels.

MH: The thing that pisses me off… I understand what you’re saying and it resonates with me. Especially in the US, we don’t think about tomorrow or the effect of global warming. The US is still debating whether global warming even exists or not –

MAT: Or whether the earth is round or flat.

MH: — it really pisses me off that mankind has so much intelligence… I’m looking at three monitors right now demonstrating this intelligence and technology… and yet our group intelligence is no greater than a yeast molecule, concerned with nothing more than eating today to live for tomorrow. How are we so smart and yet so stupid?

GS: So, let’s follow that up with an incredibly stupid question… is there any way fusion could lead to some sort of global catastrophe?

MH: I think you’re completely off-base. My opinion is that if you do a complete balance of energy created versus pollution created, then fusion is the cleanest. The only possible source that’s cleaner is wind, but there’s just no way wind could replace all of our energy needs. Fusion is cleaner than solar, hydroelectric, fission, etc. And fusion doesn’t have the problems that fission does. Because of the mass of the plasma that’s in there, it’s so light that it can’t blow up. If it touches the wall, it could heat the wall and maybe damage the wall, but it couldn’t go through the wall or blow up. There’s a failsafe. And like fission, fusion does have nuclear waste, but it’s smaller, easier to maintain, and has a half-life of 100 years or less. We use tritium (a hydrogen isotope). So I suppose the worst scenario I could think of would be if somebody broke in, stole all the tritium, and used it to create a hydrogen bomb.

MAT: I looked and looked for a down side and really couldn’t find one except that it’s very complicated and expensive. It’s not dangerous.

GS: See, that’s my scientific ignorance. I hear fusion compared to a small sun and my thought is that it’s far too much heat – the temperature is more worrisome to me than the nuclear aspect.

MH: To put it in context, we were creating plasma in Switzerland that reached 100,000,000 degrees Celsius on a day-to-day basis. A million degrees is not that big of a deal. It may have been played up for the film, because it sounds impressive to create something hotter than the sun. But with the magnetic field, we can control that. It’s not dangerous. There’s an example I like to use. If you take a vat of cold water and put a single drop of very, very hot water into it, the hot water will not heat up the vat. The reason is simple: the mass of the drop is much less than the mass of the vat. The tokamak is similar in that the mass of the plasma is very small.

GS: Once people see the film, if they’re inspired by your work, what one thing can they do to help move the research forward?

MH: Especially in the States, the answer is to write to your congressman. Write to your senator and also to the House of Representatives. Right now, they’re working on the 2018 budget. The Senate right now wants to make the funding of ITER $0. Congress and President Trump have allotted $50 million for ITER, down from $125 million from last year. To me, the most constructive thing to do is send an e-mail or letter to urge the funding of fusion.

MAT: I would agree. And as a Canadian, I’m more ashamed of Canada because we don’t have any public support. The governments get away with it because people are either scared, don’t know or don’t care. So informing the government that you do care is the next step. Even if a private company does the work, the government needs to be involved and if they think the public is apathetic, they just won’t do anything. People need to know that fusion exists and it won’t destroy the world. It may not factor into our energy equation just yet, but I wanted to highlight scientists with the foresight to see 100 years down the road. Very few people think that way, so I thought it was amazing they considered their grandkids’ grandkids.

GS: Mila, thank you for the film. And Mark, thank you for your work!

MAT/MH: Thank you for your time, we appreciate it.

Also try another article under Film Industry
or another one of the writings of Gavin.

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