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Steven Cowley

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If fusion is the holy grail of energy, Steven Cowley is its patron saint. Even though that puts him in a significant minority.

As Chief Executive of the UK’s Atomic Energy Authority (and director of its Culham laboratory), Steven is at the absolute cutting-edge of energy research. He’s also passionate about it to a degree that seems inexplicable given that by his own estimates, commercial fusion energy is about two decades away.

But patience is at the heart of all pure research – and knowing that there is no alternative gives his work an urgency others don’t yet feel. “We’re completely reliant on energy and yet, 50 years into the future, we don’t have a solution for base load energy,” he said recently in an interview. “That means a seriously reduced quality of living for everybody in the world. Our quality of life will depend significantly on how much we spend on energy research today.”

It’s his life’s mission that when that time does come, we have an answer. And he’s betting – against conventional wisdom, against experience, against the odds, even – that the answer will be Fusion Energy.

Fusion, basically, is the process by which lightweight atoms under pressure are fused to form heavier atoms, thereby releasing energy. And while the basic science behind it has been cracked – the Joint European Torus (JET) in the UK produced 16MW of fusion energy in experiments – the challenges to making it commercially viable are significant. The most significant is the need for attaining and stabilising temperatures of 150 million degrees centigrade – about 10 times hotter than the centre of the sun – which additionally involves developing materials from scratch that can survive those temperatures. But Steven is certain it’s only a matter of time. “People say that fusion is 30 years away and always will be. But we have done it – we’ve achieved fusion energy. We will achieve this too.”

As director of the Culham Fusion Science Center, he’s working hands-on with researchers on the France-based ITER fusion device that is the next logical step in the process. The biggest challenge, then, is funding. What it will take is research, and money. “Governments have to realise we have only three options for the future – solar, fission and fusion, and they all need research. We better start investing in all three, it’s not the case of picking the best – because if you pick the wrong one, you might not be ready by the time you need that energy,” he wrote in a column in The Guardian in 2010.

Why is he betting on fusion? “Because it’s the perfect energy source – it doesn’t take up much space, is safe, has a virtually inexhaustible supply, doesn’t put carbon into the atmosphere and doesn’t leave any long-term radioactive waste.”

He’s willing to devote his lifetime to it if those at the helm put up the money. “And it’s peanuts compared to the global energy market,” he says. “The world energy market is about 5 to 6 trillion dollars and what we’re investing in government- funded energy research is about 0.2% of that sum.”

Fortunately, his scientific antecedents are flawless enough to convince the most skeptical. With an Oxford degree and a PhD from Princeton, physics has been a lifelong passion. After spending 8 years researching and teaching the subject at California’s UCLA, he moved to lead the plasma physics group at London’s revered Imperial College. Today, he remains a part-time professor at the college and is one of the world’s best respected nuclear physicists, with over 150 published scientific papers and a place on the Prime Minister’s Council on Science & Technology. He is also a Fellow of the American Physical Society and the Institute of Physics.

All the science talk hasn’t blunted his sense of humour though. “I’m probably the only person who gets delighted every time Mr Putin turns off the gas tap,” he says, “because then my budget goes up.”


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