Lockheed Martin’s legendary Skunk Works team has come up with a new compact fusion reactor design that could achieve a 90 percent savings in size, meaning that a reactor that once took up an entire apartment could fit in the back of your old Ford F-150. By the way that’s fusion, not fission. Our friends over at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory describe nuclear fusion as “bringing star power down to earth,” so no wonder everybody is all excited about the new Skunk Works breakthrough.
Well, maybe not everybody. The Skunk Works announcement set the tubes on fire when it came out yesterday, including a good deal of pushback from the unbelievers.
What Is A Compact Fusion Reactor?
Since we haven’t dipped a toe in the nuclear fusion waters for a while, now is a good time for a quick review. Lawrence Livermore’s National Ignition Facility is a great go-to source for all the details on fusion, but for now let’s just say that loosely speaking a fusion reactor runs on hydrogen, but instead of splitting atoms it fuses them together.
Specifically, a fusion reactor works by fusing two isotopes of hydrogen, both of which are abundant. One is deuterium, which can be harvested from seawater. The other is a form of lithium called tritium [update: as more accurately described by LLNL, “tritium is produced by the transmutation of lithium”].
With enough heat and pressure, the nuclei of the two isotopes fuse into a helium nucleus, resulting in a loss of mass. If you know your Einstein, then you know that the mass doesn’t just vanish. It’s converted into energy, and lots of it.
Not for nothing but here in the US the domestic lithium supply is a bit iffy, but that could change as the Obama Administration’s Critical Materials initiative gets up to speed. Growth in the geothermal industry could also help ensure a healthy domestic source.
Where were we? Oh, right. So, unlike the Fukushima-style risks that beset nuclear fission, fusion power doesn’t risk a melt down. Also, the waste disposal issues are far less complex.
The problem is that we know what we want to do, we just don’t know how to get there yet. In the current state of technology, researchers have been able to set off a fusion reaction but they haven’t been able to sustain it without more energy input, which kind of defeats the whole purpose.
The Skunk Works Compact Fusion Reactor
In this context, the Lockheed Martin Skunk Works compact fusion reactor announcement was actually quite modest, at least for near term expectations.
By shrinking the size of a compact fusion reactor by 90 percent, the Skunk Works team hopes to shrink the time and expense involved in building and testing a full scale prototype.
Tom McGuire, who leads the Skunk Works Revolutionary Technology Programs, was pretty clear in that regard, stating that “the smaller size will allow us to design, build and test the CFR in less than a year.”
So, Skunk Works isn’t exactly saying that you could drive your F-150 over to the local hardware store and load it up with a new compact fusion reactor along with a few bales of hay any time soon. It seems to us that they’re saying they’ve figured out a cost-effective way to rev up the R&D end.
The expectation, according to Lockheed’s press release, is that the new Skunk Works compact fusion reactor will yield enough progress over the next ten years to result in “functional, operational nuclear reactors.”
That’s coming on top of 60 years of experience in the nuclear fusion field, so this didn’t just come out of nowhere.
If you want to get a taste of some of the pushback, Business Insider has a representative rundown.
Meanwhile, we’ll just note for the record that along with legacy clean energy projects like the new compact fusion reactor, Lockheed Martin is scrambling into new, emerging green fields including waste-to-energy, wave energy, and a laser-based system for recharging electric aircraft in flight.