Last Tech Age 2013/03/26
The $1 billion MFTF-B fusion experiment was built, then dismantled before it was turned on — our first sign of the politicization of fusion.
Energy independence should be an issue important to everyone. Instead, it has been a political issue in and out of the news for many years. MFTF-B was a fusion test facility, built for nearly a billion dollars (inflation adjusted) located at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California. It was dedicated in the mid-1980s and abandoned in place the very next day.
There have been a number fusion programs pregnant with new promise but smashed for national political reasons. We discuss the MFTF-B program here.
The MFTF-B Story
Shortly after World War II, physicists though that success with energy generation would be as easy as our fusion bombs that worked so well. We had a number of ideas; we were pretty excited about them all. Hubris. Our success with mass killing devices made us overlook that bombs are very inefficient.
By 1980, the United States was one of the world leaders in fusion energy research. This leadership had developed over a long painful period where our naive guesses were replaced by real mastery of ultra hot gases that are the kernel of fusion power generation. There were many different paths being considered. The technique at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) in California was magnetic mirrors.
Development of Mirror Coil Confinement
Of American mirror fusion devices, LLNL was the best funded, though other labs in the U.S. and around the world also worked on such devices. Click any figure for full resolution images.
LLNL developed a sequence of magnetic mirror test prototypes over the 20 years between mid 1950s (Q-Cumber) through the mirror-inside-a-mirror device TMX (Tandem Mirror eXperiment) shown in Fig 1.
LLNL physicists began construction in 1977 of a very large tandem mirror device MFTF (Mirror Fusion Test Facility), prior to making TMX fully operational and getting data from its tests. This is same time TFTR (Tokamak Fusion Test Reactor) at Princeton was built, and turned on.
In about 1980, TMX yielded good results which required a quick extension to the facility for the -B modification. Construction was complete in 1986.
Figure 3 is a 2009 photograph of the MFTF-B building at LLNL (left); also (right) the building showing the location of MFTF-B.
Fig 3: MFTF-B at LLNL. Left: Bld 431 (2009 image). Right: Same, with scaled diagram above
MFTF-B is diagrammed in Fig 4. The top diagram is follows a 1982 diagram, the magnetic field and potential geometry diagrams are from a 1984 model by D. Grubb. This diagram is meant to show the evolved coil structures and overall sizes of the device.
Key elements – a smooth magnetic field in the central solenoid coils, followed by extremely high magnetic intensity at either end in the choke coils, followed by complicated coils at the ends.
The central magnetic well would be sufficient to hold most of the hot plasma in the center, where it could fuse to generate energy.
The “electrostatic potential” marked in Fig 4 is high voltage developed at either end as a final block against the escaping electrons.
Fig 5 shows the ‘ying-yang’ confinement coil pair located at the ends of the device (Image source: LLNL). These complicated coils outside the choke coils are needed to keep the low percentage of electrons that escape the well from flowing right out the end pulling ions with them and draining the fusing central well of its fuel.
The MFTF Facility
Details of the installed device probably differed somewhat from these diagrams, but that is not important, now. The point is that, by the mid 1980s, MFTF-B was the end result of detailed step-wise research program dating back to the 1950s.
Nearly $400 M was invested in the machine. Inflated to 2013, this would be $740 M. The coils were said to use most of the superconducting material in the world at that time.
Its vacuum tank was 190 ft (58 m) long, a bit less than the length of a skipjack attack submarine, and about 12 people wide (32.8 ft, about 10 m). Fig 6 shows the installed ying-yang end coils during construction along with part of its team. MFTF-B would have required 180 people to operate it.
MFTF-B was a major program in the then-dynamic American fusion energy effort.
Retrospective: How well would MFTF have worked? Hard to know; MFTF was being upgraded while is was being built – it was never turned on. At the time, someone from the tokamak community started its spitball – all LLNL needed for mirror fusion was just another set of coils. Cute. Quick sound bite full of innuendo to undercut opposition. This is a well known social tactic. The phrase bubbled up as circular cross-section doughnut plasmas like TFTR were being replaced by elongated D shapes (DIII, Asdex, JET, DIII-D, Alcator C-mod) with complicated diverters to keep the walls from boiling off and poisoning the discharge. Such changes required additional coils, too. Nowadays, tokamaks probably need yet another set of coils to make a “super diverter.” (The SD came from the U of Texas; it looks good in concept and means more coils). Note that chirping “more complicated coils” helped kill stellerators in the U.S., too.
Once a damning phrase is in vogue by the intelligentsia, it is hard to retract. Here is a physicist who says that in the 1980s, mirrors lost out to tokamaks due to performance comparisons. I was a tokamak physicist back then; I have to say – that competition never happened.
Currently, fusion failed has bubbled into vogue in right-wing America. Think we can work past self-satisfied know-it-alls and secure an energy future?
It’s The Economics, Stupid!
The facility was dedicated on 1986 Feb 21. Not a very happy celebration because MFTF-B was consigned to storage the very next day. Science Magazine article here.
The machine was still in place in its darkened building when I last saw it in the 1990s. Certainly, by now, the valuable materials in the device have evaporated into other needy labs at Livermore
Why was MFTF-B built, then mothballed, never to be powered up? The events went through the fusion professionals like a major earthquake. They spent nearly 3/4 of a Billion U.S. Dollars (2012 value) to put it together and the politicians trashed the entire investment without even turning on the first power switch.
It was too hard to understand at the time, but MFTF-B was an early casualty of a political fight that may actually be into its end game today, since today’s budget sequestration just might finish dismantling what is left of U.S. fusion research.
Fig 7 is a graph from Wikipedia Commons and shows a series of projections by ERDA, the predecessor of our present Department Of Energy.
These were various time-to-power plant prototype projections.
The 1978 level (flat line) was added to the estimate that flat, then-current funding levels would lead to “fusion never” for a power producing device.
Funding history has been so small after 1978 that the actual funding curve is difficult to appreciate on a large graph.
Fig 8 has been used in other LastTechAge posts such as the American Income Pump. The bright red foreground curve is the U.S. annual fusion budget in inflation-adjusted 2010 dollars.
Visible trends: In the late 1960s, the Soviets made a major breakthrough (tokamaks) and shortly after this, American labs verified the repeatability of their successes. A short time after our own tests, the U.S. fusion research budget rose dramatically and jumped nearly a factor of 5 during the 1970s. It reached a plateau about 1980 but began its precipitous fall about 1983 or ’84.
The pale blue background curve in Fig 8 shows a different trend. The background is the fraction of the total income earned in the United States that is taken in by the highest paid 10% of all workers. In 1981, the earned fraction, which had been constant, began a significant ramp upwards. Since there is always a fixed 100% of income being earned, this means that income started to flow from the lower-paid 90% of the population into the pockets of the highest-paid 10%. The situation is actually worse than shown. The demographic driving the overwhelming rise in upper level incomes are actually those very few families in the uppermost 0.01% of all earners whose share of the total did not just double (as shown in Fig 8), but actually jumped by a factor or 5. More about this American income pump in various posts, also in this page.
The drop in fusion funding did not raise the upper wage-earners’ income share, nor vice versa. The two curves show correlated responses to some external forcing function that has been driving them both. We delay further discussion about that background forcing effort to a future post.
MFTF-B was a wake-up call about the political influence on technology development. The regime that took power in 1981 were determined to close DOE though they found that to be too difficult. But they did reduce budget for one of the most promising technologies for safe high density power sources that exists. Interesting that technology nowadays has come to mean computer toys and apps, not high-level hardware and clever design techniques.
In the 1990s, the Clintons made “It’s the Economy, stupid” a famous sound bite of current short-term earning capability vs. votes. The loss of American fusion energy support is not about the economy, it seems to be related to the economics of the acquisition of financial power. The most positive thing that can be said is the rest of the world has not abandoned the fusion power, just the U.S.