Lockheed’s Big Idea for Small Fusion

Researchers at Lockheed Martin's famous Skunk Works say they have a breakthrough concept that could bring the world clean, safe fusion energy sooner than anybody thought.

NASA - Getty
NASA - Getty

Lockheed Martin Corp. raised plenty of eyebrows on Wednesday in saying that it had reached a breakthrough on the holy grail of energy projects, with plans for a portable fusion reactor that could be ready for the market in just 10 years.

Actually, what Lockheed Martin thinks it has is a breakthrough concept that could theoretically solve some of the problems that have plagued fusion energy’s development. Now, it is hoping to get partners to translate theoretical advances into practical advances, all in the hopes of creating a cheap, clean, risk-free source of energy.

Tom McGuire, the head of the compact fusion project at the Skunk Works, Lockheed’s internal research shop, told Foreign Policy that Lockheed’s concept for a fusion reactor differs from the existing, $20 billion multinational effort at ITER in France. On paper, that means the Lockheed design could produce a much more compact, simplified fusion reactor.

"We’re very early on in our approach," McGuire said. "But we’re building on 60 years of research, so while our concept is novel and new, it is building on a lot of pieces that have been very extensively researched across the field." He acknowledged that as the Skunk Works dives into the experimental work, "there’s a whole spectrum of problems" that will need to be tackled.

Fusion, the process which drives the sun itself, has long been a goal of scientists. By combining, rather than splitting, nuclei, a fusion reactor would not have potentially uncontrollable chain reactions or the risk of meltdown, like a regular fission reactor. There would be very little radioactive waste. And there’s virtually no risk that the materials used for fusion reactors could be used for nuclear weapons. Plus, the fuel is abundant and cheap, potentially opening the door to a ready, affordable source of energy that would help the world fight poverty and climate change at the same time.

The idea behind fusion reactors is to heat a combination of deuterium and tritium until they fuse; the result is the production of helium, a bunch of neutrons, and massive amounts of energy. At the heart of the Lockheed concept is a new configuration for the magnetic fields that is meant to hold the plasma field in place inside the reactor in such a way that it ensures that the plasma remains stable. McGuire said that he thinks his team’s technique, a throwback to one type of fusion research developed in recent decades, could solve a problem that has dogged researchers working on now traditional approaches to fusion.

"That’s the breakthrough on the concept side. What we need to show is that it doesn’t just work on paper or on the computer, but that it actually works in the experiment," McGuire said.

"It looks like it works in concept, but there are plenty of things that could pop up down the road. Anywhere down that path, you could get derailed, but that path looks very feasible, because each step is reasonable, even looking down to the prototype reactor," which he hopes to have ready in about five years, he said.

Scientists at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory announced their own small fusion breakthrough earlier this year. They found a new way to bombard the deuterium and tritium with energy to produce more power than they put in, at least briefly.

But the Lockheed project is more ambitious, aiming at 10 one-year "generations" of developmental work with the goal of having a 100-megawatt power plant the size of a tractor-trailer ready within a decade.

Fusion experts aren’t entirely sure what to make of the Lockheed announcement, especially since little new has been publicly released since the Skunk Works first talked up its plans for this new kind of fusion reactor in early 2013. At the same time, Lockheed hasn’t released the sort of detailed information that would allow plasma physicists to accurately judge the concept’s merits.

"If there is a faster, quicker, smarter approach to fusion than anything that’s been developed so far, that would be fantastic," said Stewart Prager, the director of the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory. He said the paucity of detailed information on the Lockheed project’s theoretical approach and practical advances makes it hard to judge how viable it really is.

"The promise of fusion is so enormous, the more brains involved the better. So if they have some insights that haven’t been floated before, that would be fantastic, but we’d really have to see what they are."

Other nuclear experts noted that, regardless of what happens in the laboratory, the acid test for new nuclear technologies is a grueling licensing process by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. That means that hopes for a commercial reactor in just a decade may well be too optimistic.

"The effective use of the technology is likely to be more than a decade away, and claims of having any technology make a significant near-term impact on the marketplace would be premature," said Andrew Klein, a professor of nuclear engineering at Oregon State University. 

Keith Johnson is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @KFJ_FP

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