Lockheed announces fusion breakthrough
Lockheed Martin is claiming a breakthrough with a new fusion energy project that could, to put it lightly, have massive ramifications for the world. According to a report from Reuters, Lockheed claims that it could have a working prototype fusion generator within five years, and a commercial model ready within 10.
The announcement is the culmination of four years of work from project head Tom McGuire and his team working out of Lockheed’s secretive Skunk Works lab. According to McGuire, their work has reached a point where they are seeking out for partners in the academic world, industry, and government laboratories to advance it further. McGuire also confirmed the company already has several patents pending.
Lockheed went on to state that it would build and test a compact fusion reactor in under a year. Within five years, it would have a working prototype, and that in turn would lead to an operational reactor in 10 years strong enough to power a U.S. Navy warship, but 10 times smaller than current generators.
The process Lockheed is banking on uses a deuterium-tritium fuel. Deuterium is a common element found in the ocean; tritium is a bit less common, but can be created from natural lithium deposits. Deuterium-tritium fuel could produce 10 million times the amount of energy that fossil fuels produce, using the same volume of fuel. Unfortunately, Lockheed claimed its process does create radioactive waste, but future reactors using different fuel sources could eliminate that.
The reactor McGuire and his team are working on uses a plasma reaction. It generates incredibly hot plasma, which then breaks apart and fuses atoms. The problem with this type of reactor is that the plasma is so hot that containing it becomes extremely difficult. Lockheed’s proposed breakthrough involves a containment system that uses magnetic fields to hold electrically charged ions in place, which are then super-heated until they fuse, creating new particles. The uncharged neutrons created through this process then pass through the magnetic field and are caught in the walls of the reactor, transferring their energy to the generator.
Research into plasma-based fusion generators using magnetic fields is not unique to Lockheed, but most confinement reactors are large and expensive to produce. McGuire claims that Lockheed’s reactor offers an adaptive magnetic field, which can change the strength of its field to match and contain the plasma. This would lead to a significantly smaller generator.
Of course, at the moment this is still just theoretical. Lockheed and McGuire have come to a point where they need to reach out to others for funding and scientific verification, which is encouraging, but it is a far stretch from theory to practical design. Still, the research is promising, and perhaps more importantly, Lockheed’s announcement puts the spotlight on fusion research.
Energy consumption around the world is expected to rise as much as 50-percent what it is now over the next generation, and fossil fuel reserves are diminishing. Not only does that mean a possible energy crash is looming, but conflicts over those reserves will continue to arise. The possible arrival of fusion reactors, which use bountiful elements that produce far more energy than fossil fuels, could quickly become vital. With Lockheed stepping up and claiming that it is 10 years away from a practical fusion generator, that could set a timetable for others to try to match.
Just this week, another possible fusion reactor made the news, as Andrea Rossi’s much maligned E-Cat passed verification from an independent, third-party group. That device reportedly uses a different form fusion called Low-Energy Nuclear Reaction (LENR), a lower output form of fusion that transmutes nickel into copper. The output is significantly less than the plasma fusion reactions Lockheed is focusing on, but LENR has the added benefit of producing no radioactive waste, and it can – in theory – be generated in a smaller reactor. Plus the output is still a huge increase over conventional fossil fuels.
Despite positive results from the E-Cat, the device still needs to pass a massive amount of scrutiny and prove its viability. The same is true for Lockheed.
Regardless of the hurdles still to come, and regardless of who is first to market with a viable fusion generator, the future of energy production is extremely bright.
Image courtesy: Lockheed Martin