SAN DIEGO — UC San Diego physicist Marshall Rosenbluth spent the last 38 years trying to unravel the mystery of fusion and he doesn't figure the ultimate solution will be found in his lifetime.
"The more we learn, the more there seems left to do," says Rosenbluth, whom colleagues affectionately call the "Pope of Plasma Physics."
Rosenbluth's stature in the field was among the key reasons that UC San Diego won the opportunity last week to be the headquarters of the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, a prestigious $1.2-billion international fusion research project.
For Rosenbluth and others who have spent their lives in what may well be a century-long quest to harness fusion energy, the ITER project means the long-awaited chance to work out the design for a concept that promises unlimited, inexpensive fuel without pollution.
Fusion generates power by fusing simple atoms, such as hydrogen, mimicking the natural process that occurs at the sun's core. Fission, the current energy source at the world's atomic energy plants, splits complex atoms, such as uranium.
For 50 years, supporters have envisioned fusion plants powered by hydrogen atoms culled from sea water. Unlike atomic fission plants that each day produce radioactive waste, fusion plants would be relatively benign.
And, unlike electricity-generating plants that burn fossil fuels, fusion plants would not contribute to global warming or acid rain. Fusion might also make saltwater desalination more cost-effective and produce radioisotopes for medicine and industry.
"The net result is 50 years from now, the world should have an energy source that is available for the next 14 billion years," said David Overskei, vice president of General Atomics' fusion energy group.
Proponents acknowledge that under the most optimistic conditions the first commercial plant probably could not be opened until the "end of the first quarter of the next century, said Neal Blue, chairman of La Jolla-based General Atomics.
Indeed, scientists acknowledge they still have not proved that fusion energy can be harnessed and used as an everyday energy source. While many experts believe the technology exists to develop a functioning fusion device, they wonder whether it could ever be refined and simplified so that it could be used by a utility company.
Even if scientists solve the technological problems, fusion could be ignored in favor of cheaper alternatives, like second generation fission or solar power plants.
"Fusion is kind of like a small kid just learning how to walk. I don't worry about whether or not it will work but how it will do against the competition," said Thomas Simonen, director of General Atomics' fusion reactor program in San Diego.
Research into commercial uses for fusion energy began in the early 1950s, as scientists began to grapple with the physics involved in creating a fusion reaction--with temperatures as high as 400 million degrees centigrade--in a laboratory setting.
Fission researchers, beginning a few years earlier, made dramatic advances quickly, in part because their research piggybacked on the extensive military research and development effort that led to the development of atomic bombs.
General Atomics, which has the nation's second-largest fusion reactor, has assembled one of the largest groups of fusion researchers in the world. Scientists at General Atomics were heavily involved in San Diego's campaign to acquire the ITER project. The project will be in a building near General Atomics' $400-million fusion research facility in Sorrento Valley.
The project grew out of the 1985 Geneva Summit between the United States and Soviet Union, which pioneered fusion research. The Soviet Union proposed an international project to finance the huge cost of building an experimental fusion reactor. A year later, officials from the United States, Soviet Union, Japan and the European Community began to plan for how scientists worldwide could collaborate, perhaps through the year 2040, to complete the work.
The ITER project is the second stage of that plan, designing and engineering the planned reactor. It is expected to take six years.
Several countries vied for the honor of this scientific plum, which was divided among San Diego and satellite facilities in Japan and Germany. San Diego won the ITER headquarters largely because of its growing reputation as a center for scientific research, attracting experts such as Rosenbluth.
But ITER officials also were impressed with the economic package that San Diego offered, said Dan Pegg, president of the San Diego Economic Development Corp. The package included $1 million in private and city donations to subsidize housing costs for foreign scientists. And the city's public and private schools banded together to offer a unique package of educational opportunities designed to ease foreign scientists' doubts about San Diego schools.