Fusion is energy's future: Steven Cowley on TED.com

Posted by: Shanna Carpenter

Physicist Steven Cowley is certain that nuclear fusion is the only truly sustainable solution to the fuel crisis. He explains why fusion will work — and details the projects that he and many others have devoted their lives to, working against the clock to create a new source of energy. (Recorded at TEDGlobal, July 2009, Oxford, England. Duration: 9:55)

Watch Steven Cowley’s talk on TED.com, where you can download this TEDTalk, rate it, comment on it and find other talks and performances from our archive of 500+ TEDTalks.

Comments (9)

  • Isaac Vega commented on Oct 16 2013

    I find it disturbing how he oversimplified fusion reactions to the point of being false. He described the deuterium-tritium reaction as though it were the only feasible way in which fusion reactions can occur, and then neglected to discuss any of the other reaction types (for example, pB-11). Granted, he did say it was the “easiest” form of fusion (false, by the way), and this is aimed toward an audience with little or no understanding of the intricacies of fusion mechanics, but I feel that such things should be mentioned regardless, lest the speaker inadvertently mislead the audience.

    • Isaac Vega commented on Oct 16 2013

      Note also that he focuses entirely on tokamak reactors, and makes no mention of stellarators or pinch devices (such as “Focus Fusion,” which basically utilizes a dense plasma focus, and has come much closer to generating sustainable fusion reactions than any tokamak reactor to date).

  • David Spielberg commented on Jan 1 2011

    I would like to bring to your attention a brief history of KMS Fusion. The American Physical Society comment on this company follows:

    Keeve M. (Kip) Siegel was a professor of Physics at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, MI, and the founder of Conductron Corporation, a high tech producer of electronic equipment which was absorbed by McDonnell Douglas Corporation; KMS Industries and KMS Fusion. KMS Fusion was the first and only private sector company to pursue controlled thermonuclear fusion research through use of laser technology. The KMS Fusion team included some of the top experts in the United States at the time, such as Keith Brueckner, Nobel Prize winner Robert Hofstadter, and Siegel himself. On May 1, 1974, KMS Fusion carried out the world’s first successful laser-induced fusion in a deuterium-tritium pellet, the evidence for which was provided by neutron-sensitive nuclear emulsion detectors developed by Hofstadter.

    The demise of this company is the most under-reported major energy story of the late 20th century. Amazingly, Prof. Siegel died as he was testifying to Congress on government harassment and obstruction of his for-profit company’s successful research into laser fusion inertial confinement ignition of deuterium-tritium targets. KMS Fusion used no federal funds and its goal was to produce a commercially viable laser fusion energy generator. His death was under mysterious circumstances because in the last few minutes of the Congressional hearing there was a change in the order of presentations. Siegel was scheduled to go next to last, followed by advocates for the University of Rochester who were seeking government financing of their program. The order of presentations was abruptly changed so that Siegel went last. The University of Rochester went before Siegel instead of after, made their successful pitch and subsequently, with major federal funding, became one of the preeminent publicly funded laser fusion labs, the Laboratory for Laser Energetics. The LLE folks readily admit that if the original order of presentations had been maintained, Siegel’s death at the podium would have precluded further presentations putting in doubt LLE’s eventual funding by the feds.

    I was present in May of 1974 when KMS Fusion successfully achieved fusion reactions the first time in history by any lab anywhere in the world. Within a year of his company’s success, Siegel was dead and his company eviscerated by the federal government. The company was kept alive by small contracts with the federal government primarily because it had the patents on how to manufacture the small target pellets needed by the federal laboratories to pursue their own research. Once they developed their own technology in this area, KMS Fusion was allowed to fail completely.

    I have since written a novel leveraged off of my experience with and exposure to KMS Fusion and Prof. Siegel: http://ondeceptionwatch.blogspot.com/

    You might be interested in investigating on your own the circumstances behind the federal killing of KMS Fusion, a story that is modestly discussed in the science world under the topic of ethics in industry-government relations.

  • hektor babenco commented on Apr 25 2010

    Cowley leaves out many of the problems but the most relevant is complexjity/reliability of the hot fusion reactor together with its minimum size. A very large, multi GW source can not be as unreliable as a TOKAMAK fusion reactor is. Did you look at the details of a TOKAMAK fusion reactor? At the criticality of all of its very radioactive components?
    How many parallel reactors one should build to make sure that there will always be a backup in case of failure?
    ITER is going to show us how unreliable this kind of reactor will be. I think it already has on paper and there is no need to waste all that money on this idea.

  • Robert Johnson commented on Jan 10 2010

    ITER will require a monstrous energy, low chance of break even.
    Aneutronic fusion reactor consumes much less energy, and can release huge amounts of energy without neutron hazards, it has good chance of a net gain.

  • Chuck Kottke commented on Jan 1 2010

    I’m thinking along Erik’s lines. After much thought and soul-searching, it seems to me ( a healthy number of other global citizens) that the “crisis” is a crisis of the mind, not of reality. Our use of energy is 90% of the problem – we humans are grossly inefficient with how we do things, and if we want the hot pizza and the cold beer, we can get those things with a tenth of our current energy consumption. But, it takes a force to move us in that direction, and a combination of education and honest governance to make that transition happen – that is the real challenge. Fusion may be in our future, but first let’s look at the problem from a sensible viewpoint – efficiency gains to be had are astounding, and as Amory Lovins @RMI puts it on the subject of energy efficiency, “the low hanging fruit, ripe to be picked, is so low that it’s actually mushing up around our ankles!”. Just imagine if we invested as much in efficiency and renewable energy (wind, solar, etc.) what we could do.

  • Ignas Galvelis commented on Dec 23 2009

    It is really strange how mainstream physicists are refusing to talk about alternative fusion concepts. While I agree that cold fusion probably has no merit, compared to ITER (a financial black hole) alternative fusion concepts probably hold more water, and are cheaper to try.
    Please Google Focus Fusion, Polywell, Field Reversed Configuration, General Fusion, Tri-Aplha and learn about the excitement behind aneutronic fusion. Best explanation is found in google tech talks videos. What we need is not to put all the eggs into one (expensive, paper) basket, but to distribute and see which incubator works best.

  • Erik van Ryssen commented on Dec 23 2009

    Interesting development. Some concerns are already mentioned: The need for alternatives to support the energy need, the unatractiveness of relying on one kind of energy supply, the use of seawater that -just as oil- is not an endless supply and has other values that need to be preserved too, and so on, and so on. Another issue that is worth bringing into the discussion is the fact that whatever energysource we will use, it will have an impact on the environment. So it is shortsighted to consider these solutions as ethernal. They are not, only vallid for let’s say, the next 30 miljon years. A long time, but not endless. And last but not least, since this form of energy production needs such huge amounts of investment in research, we should also consider it depends on the same kind of energy distribution we are now having so much trouble with, and it opens the doors to a monopolizing of energyproviders as we now have with oil. Not a very healthy situation we should be looking forward to.