By Michael Banks in Boston
It may have been the prospect of free pizza that led me to hop on a bus heading to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
But apart from a free lunch, we were also promised a tour of MIT’s fusion facilities, which are based at institute’s Plasma Science and Fusion Center (PSFC).
So after a few slices of pepperoni pizza, we donned the hard hats and moved on to the tour, which included a look at MIT’s main experimental fusion facility – the Alcator C-Mod fusion tokamak.
Operating since 1991 and with a budget of around $25m per year, Alcator C-Mod is a magnetic-confinement fusion device. It heats up a plasma of deuterium and tritium atoms to millions of degrees kelvin, which causes the hydrogen isotopes to fuse and release energy.
However, Alcator C-Mod faces an uncertain future. Last year Congress slated the facility for closure after increasing the budget for the ITER fusion reactor in France. Given no increase in the Department of Energy’s budget for fusion – standing at around $450m per year – the cut had to then come from the domestic fusion programme.
This year the facility has been given around $14m, which will keep it running. But PSFC director Miklos Porkolab likens this to a “warm shutdown”, adding that this is just enough to keep the staff working on the facility.
Indeed, Porkolab says he has been spending most of his time thinking about the budget effect and trying to lobby for more funding to keep Alcator C-Mod running. He admits that the chance to take some people on a lab tour – even on the weekend – is a welcome pause from worrying about budgets.
While Alcator C-Mod is not the only fusion facility at the PSFC – indeed some researchers based there work at the National Ignition Facility in California – its shutdown would be devastating for the lab. “We really don’t really want to think about that at the moment,” admits PSFC fusion researcher Amanda Hubbard.