Billionaire superheroes Tony Stark and Bruce Wayne's defense companies both had one, and now real-world defense giant Lockheed Martin says they have one too. It is the holy grail of cheap and stable energy, yet it has eluded the scientific community for a century. Well, that may finally be about to change once and for all with Compact Fusion Reactor (CFR).
Lockheed's 'bleeding edge' aircraft design and boutique technology development arm, the Skunk Works, has officially announced that they have what they think is a very workable and incredibly small fusion reactor design. If it does indeed work as projected it could change the the world as we know for the better, not just for powering homes and offices all over the world, but for powering ships and even spacecraft and aircraft, the cumulative effect of which would be akin to a restart on the atomic age all over again.
Early production examples of the Compact Fusion Reactor would fit into a shipping container and produce 100MW of power. This output would be enough to power well over a whopping 80,000 homes in the US and is equivalent to one of the Navy's large A4W fission reactors found on Nimitz Class aircraft carriers.
What is most exciting is that the Compact Fusion Reactor would be able to do this without the tons of radioactive material and waste that are currently produced by nuclear fission reactors scattered around the globe. Aviation Week was given exclusive access to the program, and in their expose on this potential energy revolution (which I highly recommend you read) they addressed what the CFR would need to operate and what radioactive material it would leave behind in doing so:
Lockheed estimates that less than 25 kg (55 lb.) of fuel would be required to run an entire year of operations. The fuel itself is also plentiful. Deuterium is produced from sea water and is therefore considered unlimited, while tritium is "bred" from lithium. "We already mine enough lithium to supply a worldwide fleet of reactors, so with tritium you never have too much built up, and that's what keeps it safe. Tritium would be a health risk if there were enough released, but it is safe enough in small quantities. You don't need very much to run a reactor because it is a million times more powerful than a chemical reaction," McGuire notes.
Although the first-generation reactors will have radioactive parts at the ends of their lives, such as some steel elements in the shell, McGuire says the contamination situation "is an order of magnitude better" than that of contemporary fission systems. "There is no long-lived radiation. Fission reactors' stuff will be there forever, but with fusion materials, after 100 years then you are good." Contamination levels for fusion will improve with additional materials research, he believes. "It's been a chicken-and-egg situation. Until we've had a good working fusion system, there has not been money to go off and do the hard-core materials research," McGuire says. "So we believe the first generation is good enough to go out and do, and then it will only improve in time." Old CFR steel shell parts can be disposed of with "a shallow burial in the desert, similar to medical waste today. That's a major difference to today's fission systems."
When it comes to potential meltdowns and the resulting release of deadly radioactive particles associated with them, Lockheed states:
"There is a very minimal amount of radioactive tritium—it's on the order of grams—so the potential release is very minimal. In addition, there is not enough to be a risk of proliferation. Tritium is used in nuclear weapons but in a much larger inventory than would be involved here, and that's because you are continually making just enough to feed back in [to maintain the reaction],"
Beyond the possibility of incredibly plentiful energy and clean water for billions, the implications of a CFR on the transportation world could me massive, as large ships that currently use swimming pools of fossil fuels on a weekly basis could be powered by a propulsion unit that is just a fraction of the size of their massive engines, and runs without the need to carry many thousands of pounds of fuel. The same can be said for air travel, as airliners could be built that would not need fueling during their entire service life. Additionally, high-flying drones could take the place of satellites, or even cell phone towers, for some communications relay work, staying aloft for months or years at a time without the need for fueling.
One of the most exciting potential uses for this new technology is for space travel. The power that a small fusion reactor can potentially generate, and the efficiency of its power generation, could provide a spacecraft with the thrust and energy it needs to make it to Mars and back in a fraction of the time that is currently within the realm possibility.
This all sounds so fantastic. If the Skunk Works' prophesies come true it could change the political and socioeconomic balance of the world forever, and let's face it, boy could the world use some good news. Yet we must keep in mind the fact that we have heard fusion reactor claims many times before, and other research and development tanks are working on other fusion systems as this is being written, but the abundant resources and historic track record of Lockheed's Skunk Works does give the program serious cache. There is also the fact that Lockheed has allowed such a deep look into the program, and their stated time line for making an active prototype (within five years, a production example with ten) is ambitious to the point that it would do the company no good making such claims if they did not think they were truly onto something.
In the end, it will be a wait and see affair to see if this technology turns into a stable, virtually globe saving form of near free energy. The Skunk Work has done some amazing things in the past, and many more things we still are not allowed to know about, but the creation of stable and efficient nuclear fusion concept would be quite the stripe on the Skunk's back.
pictures via Lockheed Martin
Tyler Rogoway is a defense journalist and photographer who maintains the website Foxtrot Alpha for Jalopnik.com You can reach Tyler with story ideas or direct comments regarding this or any other defense topic via the email address Tyler@Jalopnik.com