Friday Fusion Geek Out

The New York Times had a long piece out yesterday on why so many students drop out of science-track studies (or STEM—science, technology, engineering, and math) when they reach college.   The main reason is that—surprise!—students find out that science is hard, and therefore they switch to easier majors.  It’s a curious story in many ways.  A chart accompanying the story plays up the favorite theme of the Left—the gender gap in science majors, but the text of the story doesn’t go into this at all.  The story also buries a major issue that is set to explode soon perhaps in a Supreme Court case: the “mismatch hypothesis.”  As one UCLA professor explains:

“You’d like to think that since these institutions are getting the best students, the students who go there would have the best chances to succeed,” he says. “But if you take two students who have the same high school grade-point average and SAT scores, and you put one in a highly selective school like Berkeley and the other in a school with lower average scores like Cal State, that Berkeley student is at least 13 percent less likely than the one at Cal State to finish a STEM degree.”

Bonus points if you can guess why this theme is kryptonite to the higher education establishment.  I’ll come back to it in a future post, and mention the forthcoming Supreme Court case no one is paying attention to right now where this issue is going to come into play big time.

I didn’t catch up to this story until this morning, because I spent all day yesterday getting my geek on at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory up in New Jersey.  As a part of my ongoing energy work I decided to hit the road from time to time to “kick the tires,” so to speak, of our various energy labs and places where energy research and innovation are taking place.

Your Power Line correspondent reflected in a fusion demonstration chamber

The Princeton lab is one of the handful of research institutions in the U.S. working on the very long term project of developing fusion power.  The theoretical potential of fusion power is well understood, but harnessing fusion as a practical energy source is a massive engineering challenge, meaning it is very expensive and long-term.  Fusion sounds like a far-off, Star Trek-like power source, but in fact it is fairly simple, and already around us in ways we don’t realize.  The light from a fluorescent bulb is actually charged plasma, and the particles that light up inside a fluorescent tube reach 10,000 degrees.  But there are so few of the charged particles that their heat dissipates quickly.  The challenge of fusion power is to scale this phenomenon up to harness the heat to generate electricity.

You would think this would be the kind of initiative that President Obama, having promised to “restore science to its proper place” in his inaugural address, would strongly support.  And you’d be wrong.  Turns out fusion energy research received much stronger support and higher funding from the “anti-science” Bush Administration.

And so while everyone is wringing their hands that China and other nations are way ahead of the U.S. in producing solar panels and windmills, guess where those nations are really ahead of the U.S.  Yup: China, Japan, South Korea, and a European consortium are all building next generation fusion projects, mostly based on U.S. designs that we aren’t building ourselves.  Instead, we’re still playing around with small-scale experiments, and contributing our expertise to these foreign projects.

The total budget for the Princeton lab is considerably less than the Solyndra loan guarantee.  A public choice economist will tell you instantly why this happens this way.  Fusion power doesn’t offer any pork barrel opportunities, and doesn’t fit the “green jobs now” idiocy that drove the $35 billion loan guarantee program that gave us Solyndra.  There’s nothing in it for the politicians.  (In fact, Congress under Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid stiffed the European ITER fusion program, which was initiated by Reagan and Gorbachev way back in the 1980s, to which the U.S. pledged to contribute 9 percent of the budget.  But since the ITER project will be built in France instead of someone’s home district here, Congress refused to approve the appropriation under Pelosi and Reid.)

Princeton's mothballed "stellarator" fusion reactor

Fusion power is not something the private sector will ever undertake, at least not until very late stage.  And to be sure, research scientists should not get a Manhattan Project-style blank check.  But some kind of consistency and long-range commitment ought not to be too much to contemplate, even in an age of fiscal constraint.  The Princeton lab designed and started to build a new generation “stellarator” model fusion reactor, but after ordering up the components had to mothball the whole project when their budget was slashed.  So now the parts sit in their warehouse.  It would take $100 million to complete this project, a tiny fraction of the funds allocated for the loan guarantee program that brought us gems like Solyndra.


Books to read from Power Line