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ARPA-E's Dr. Fusion Talks the Future of Energy

Former Chairman and CEO of Lockheed Martin Norm Augustine hailed nuclear fusion as a potentially transformative energy technology during his remarks at the 2018 ARPA-E Energy Innovation Summit. He recalled scientists predicting commercial fusion power would be available in 30 years when he was a graduate student at Princeton in the late 1950s. When he asked a scientist at Fermi National Lab more recently when it would be available, he received the same answer.

“The good news is we haven’t lost any ground,” Augustine quipped.

In 2015, ARPA-E launched the ALPHA program (Accelerating Low-Cost Plasma Heating and Assembly) to create and demonstrate tools to aid in the development of new, lower-cost pathways to fusion power and to enable more rapid progress in fusion research and development. Dr. Scott Hsu served as the Principal Investigator for Los Alamos National Laboratory’s ALPHA project from 2015-2018, where he led a team that designed and built a new, non-destructive driver technology that could enable more rapid experimentation and progress toward cost-effective fusion power. Now an ARPA-­E Program Director overseeing the ALPHA program’s conclusion and the development of new fusion programs, Dr. Hsu focuses on potentially transformative R&D to enable timely commercial fusion energy.

We recently sat down with Dr. Hsu to chat about how he became interested in energy, why he’s optimistic about fusion’s future, and how fusion could transform the global energy landscape.

How did you first become interested in energy?

I think that the oil crises of the 1970s left an imprint on my mind as a young child, and I always remember my dad exhibiting an energy-conservation ethos. By the time I was in middle school, I already had an interest in one day working on the world’s energy challenges.

More specifically, what made you interested in fusion?

I remember doing a report on fusion early on in high school. Based on the little bit of research I did for that project – mostly just reading encyclopedia articles – I began to think that fusion was the long-term solution to humanity’s energy needs, and that I would love to contribute to making fusion energy a reality.

How do you explain fusion to non-scientists?

A couple of ways, depending on the audience. One is to say that it is the process that powers the sun and the stars, by fusing hydrogen into helium and eventually other heavier elements, which releases a significant amount of energy. I like to also point out that if we can successfully harness controlled fusion, it can become an energy source with virtually limitless fuel, no long-lived radioactive byproducts, and no risk of meltdown, so that it can be a dense power source positioned near population centers that produces carbon-free energy 24/7.

What are the major challenges to developing commercial fusion power?

The largest one is the scientific and technological challenge of realizing net energy gain, followed very closely by doing so in a way that plausibly scales to a commercially attractive power plant. We have made tremendous progress worldwide toward the former over the last 60+ years, and now we are poised to redouble our efforts to surpass the net-energy-gain milestone and to enable the latter through further scientific and technological innovations. An additional challenge is to find the resources to support a more aggressive and timely development path to fusion energy. 

What makes you optimistic about the future of fusion in the United States? 

As more and more people realize that fusion could potentially help us toward a pathway to deep worldwide decarbonization in a manner that avoids geopolitical conflicts (due to its abundant fuel), I think that socioeconomic factors could conspire to bring additional resources to bear to get fusion to the finish line. I think some of this is already starting to happen, with legislation, private-sector interest and investments, and NGO activity all starting to align to help smooth the path for further fusion development.

What differentiates ARPA-E’s approach to tackling fusion from the private sector or other federal agencies?

It’s exactly the same thing that differentiates ARPA-E from the private sector and other federal agencies, namely that ARPA-E focuses on supporting potentially disruptive and transformative R&D efforts that are still too risky for private development and that are not being seriously pursued elsewhere. Mapping this mission to fusion (which will underlie my upcoming pitch for a new fusion program), it hopefully becomes evident that ARPA-E should make targeted investments in innovations (both scientific and technological) that could catalyze and accelerate development of commercially viable fusion power, spanning plasma heating and confinement, containment, and fuel-cycle sufficiency.

How could cost-effective fusion power transform the energy landscape?

The private fusion company General Fusion’s slogan is “Clean Energy. Everywhere. Forever.” I think this would essentially be true if we realized cost-effective fusion power, which has the potential to completely transform the way we produce and use energy, and to remove energy as a source of geopolitical conflict due to the abundance of fusion fuel in seawater. If fusion is built out to become the dominant source of energy on earth, we could have enough carbon-free electricity generation for the world essentially forever, which would almost certainly open up untold further transformations in the production and use of industrial heat, fuels for transportation, water desalinization, deep-space propulsion, and maybe even Mr. Fusion-powered flying cars.