MIT houses a lot of futuristic-looking devices, and some actually focus on technology that – at this point — we can only imagine. One would be the Alcator C-Mod tokamak, a warehouse-sized, magnetized device that scientists are using to do research on fusion energy. This tokamak, one of three in the U.S., looks like a 20-foot high water tank overrun by pipes, vents, pumps and monitoring devices.
But, if the proposed federal budget passes, there will only be two — one in California and another at Princeton in New Jersey. Instead of the funding for the MIT device, as it has for more than 30 years, DOE will shift the fusion dollars to a similar international project in France.
So, MIT scientists are fighting to save it. One of them is Geoff Olynyk, a tall, thin, clean-cut graduate student in the Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering. He was studying fuel cells at Queen’s University in Ontario, Canada, when a scientist from the MIT fusion program came to speak.
“If you talk to fusion people, they inevitably have that moment when they caught the fusion bug,” he said during an interview in the tokamak control room. The visit from the MIT’s prof was when he caught it. He thought: “This is really cool and important and I want to work on it.”
He’s one of about 160 technicians, scientists and engineers who , under the 2013 budget, won’t be able to work in it- at least at MIT. So, Olynyk and others have launched a campaign — Facebook, Wikipedia page and a website called “Fusion Future” – to save the MIT program. They’ve brought Sen. John Kerry and Rep. Michael Capuano on board to tour the device. They’ve collected more than 1,800 signatures on a petition. Last week, eight university presidents — including MIT’s Susan Hockfield who sent letters to Obama’s Science Advisor Dr. John Holdren and Secretary of Energy Dr. Steven Chu asking for level funding for the domestic fusion program. One major concern – fusion researchers and students would leave the field, they wrote.
Olynyk agrees. He said the MIT program stands out from the other two in that it emphasizes training and education. If the unit is closed, he said, grad students who have enough data will be able to finish their research, but others will have to go elsewhere.
Nuclear science professor Dennis Whyte was on his way to a thesis defense after finishing up a class in the control room. He thinks the other two domestic programs will eventually be cut in favor to the ITER program in France. He’s not sure why they picked MIT this year.
“We have — as much as possible – looked at what we’ve done and what we’ve accomplished,” he said. “I don’t want this to sound arrogant, but we can’t figure out what we are doing wrong.”
Energy Secretary Steven Chu has said that the defunding of the MIT project was a “tough decision.” DOE spokesperson Keri Fulton supplied the following comment via email.
“The research projects supported through the Department’s Fusion Energy Sciences program mark the culmination of decades of effort by the international science community to demonstrate the transformative potential of fusion as an energy resource… In light of the current budget climate, the Department was required to make a number of tough choices in the FY 13 budget request, including an overall reduction to the Department’s Fusion Energy Science research program.”