PPPL expert details plans for a fusion pilot plant for presidential advisors

Written by
John Greenwald
Nov. 11, 2021

The U.S. must rapidly assemble teams of public, private and university partners if it hopes to carry out the plan urged by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine (NASEM) to design by 2028 a fusion pilot plant to operate in the 2035-2040 time period. So said Richard Hawryluk, chair of the NASEM report on bringing fusion power to the grid, long-term problem solver at the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL), and recently retired associate director for fusion at the Laboratory.

Hawryluk delivered the October 19 talk to the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST), a 30-member group of non-government experts that President Biden has formed to recommend science, technology, and innovation policies. The talk came on the second day of the council’s two-day conference onClimate Change, Energy and the Environment.”

Key points

Hawryluk detailed key points of the report and fielded council questions, some of them skeptical. He stressed that the report provides a national strategy “for a fusion pilot plant that must provide the technical and economic information needed for utilities to operate future commercial plants.” Moreover, he added, “the path is clear. The goals, innovations and a timeline has been identified” and the resulting “plan is bold and achievable.” A pilot plant is seen as a next major step before a fusion power plant could deliver energy to power cities around the world.

As the first step to assemble national teams, the DOE should “evaluate and identify the best model for public-private partnerships to accelerate development and reduce government cost for a fusion pilot plant,” he said. “Teams made up of private industries, national labs, and universities bring together important strengths,” he said. “Industry brings the focus on deploying a usable product on a timeframe that will meet market needs, and national labs and universities bring innovation and deep technical expertise.

Hawryluk was asked whether a workable design for a pilot plant really could be produced by 2028, given the many different competing concepts that exist. He said it could be done if the national design teams and associated research and technology development were funded. However, he said, “We made very clear in the report that if we don’t have a design in 2028 for a fusion system,” one that can produce net electricity for the cost metrics in the report, “we should not go ahead with constructing a pilot plant and continue the research to develop innovations to do so.”

Another council member wondered whether the timetable of the report was too pessimistic, since people in industry are talking about selling fusion reactors in the 2030s. “We do know that private companies want to do this faster than we said in the report,” Hawryluk said. “We laid out what needed to be done, particularly in demonstrating the technology as far as reliability and operating costs are concerned, and clearly over time people can re-examine that and come to different conclusions.”

Public-private aspect

Hawryluk concurred with a council member who noted that the public-private aspect of the plan appeared to make the most sense and that complementing the plan with private-sector effort and money would make the project worthwhile. “I agree with the importance of the public-private partnership,” Hawryluk said, adding that the report “provides very clear guidelines to both the technology people and the scientists as to what they need to do to get there.”

Going forward, he stressed that, “We need to combine both physics and technology. The integration is really important for us to make progress and this is a theme of our report.” The initial step now is “to set up these national teams and address the questions of how do we work together to accelerate this process? The opportunity is there and we should move ahead and get on with it.”

Click here for Key Takeaways that summarize the report. To view the full two-day PCAST conference click on the YouTube link at the bottom of the Key Takeaways page. The talk by Richard Hawryluk can be found on the YouTube timeline at 3 hours and 16 minutes.

PPPL, on Princeton University's Forrestal Campus in Plainsboro, N.J., is devoted to creating new knowledge about the physics of plasmas — ultra-hot, charged gases — and to developing practical solutions for the creation of fusion energy. The Laboratory is managed by the University for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science, which is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, visit energy.gov/science.