To the Editor:
PAUL WOLFOWITZ explains clearly the importance of water engineers in addressing the challenge of water scarcity in the Middle East [“Water Engineers Will Be Its Heroes,” January]. But getting water from the largest and most sustainable reservoirs, including the oceans, requires desalination, and desalination on a huge scale requires cheap energy. So the path to water abundance leads through energy research.
Right now the only technology being developed that promises clean, safe energy far cheaper than existing sources is the still experimental but patented “Focus Fusion” process, well documented by LPPFusion, Inc. (on whose board of advisers I sit). If successfully developed, this technology will result in being able to build 5-megawatt generators capable of providing electricity to the grid for a total cost of less than $500,000. This would be less than one-tenth the price of coal, and it would be pollution- and radiation-free—a true paradigm shift capable of mending the world.
Such cheap energy would make possible massive desalination of brackish ground water and even seawater. Only money is limiting progress. Currently, research is funded by about $600,000 a year in private investments, but larger private or government funding could speed the development of this vital technology.
Paul Wolfowitz writes:
TO QUOTE Professor David Sedlak of Berkeley, as I quoted him in the article, the “laws of physics make it unlikely that we will ever fill the desalination highway with a bunch of compact hybrid vehicles.” Of course, if energy costs can be brought down by 90 percent, as Mr. Samuels suggests, there would be no need for the equivalent of compact hybrid vehicles, whether for desalination or for transportation. That would indeed be a paradigm shift—and not only for agriculture.
The dream of controlled nuclear fusion has long been pursued as a route to virtually unlimited supplies of clean energy. Some $20 billion has already been spent on what one critic calls the “overdue and overbudget ITER project,” an international consortium to build a large fusion reactor. A number of alternative approaches are being pursued, some of them by small companies such as Mr. Samuels’s, some by investors such as Goldman Sachs and Jeff Bezos. As in many other cases of technological innovation, it might be the unorthodox approach that eventually achieves a breakthrough.
But that possibility, still seemingly remote, is not a reason to invest in desalination plants that are designed based on current energy costs.