Has Fusion Energy Finally Arrived?

 

Lockheed Martin has claimed that their famed Skunk Works division made a major breakthrough in developing a nuclear fusion reactor. Their plan is to create several 100-megawatt reactors small enough to fit on the backs of trucks.

As a former submarine reactor operator, I wondered if I would ever see economical nuclear fusion in my lifetime. Fusion has long been a holy grail to nuclear engineers, with research institutions pouring billions into models that produced little energy at exorbitant cost. Many charlatans and cranks have latched onto fusion as a sort of perpetual motion machine, sullying the field for real scientists.

The fact that a respectable organization like Lockheed has claimed a breakthrough — not some unknown professor or LaRouchian zealot — has caused the energy world to take notice.

Put simply, nuclear fusion is the photo negative of current nuclear fission technology. In fission, a relatively large atom (such as Uranium with an atomic mass of 236) is split into two smaller atoms, releasing a large amount of energy. Nuclear fusion forces two tiny atoms (Hydrogen, atomic mass 1) into one larger atom (Helium, atomic mass 4), releasing an enormous amount of energy. (Aerospace Weekly delivers the technical details of the project here.)

Fission-versus-Fusion

We all know the drawbacks of fission reactors: massive facilities, storing radioactive waste, and the fears of a meltdown. But with a fusion reactor, there is minimal waste and zero potential of a meltdown. If successful, fusion will revolutionize power development, creating cheap, sustainable energy at low cost and with minimal environmental impact.

In a statement, the company, the Pentagon’s largest supplier, said it would build and test a compact fusion reactor in less than a year, and build a prototype in five years…

If it proves feasible, Lockheed’s work would mark a key breakthrough in a field that scientists have long eyed as promising, but which has not yet yielded viable power systems. The effort seeks to harness the energy released during nuclear fusion, when atoms combine into more stable forms.

”We can make a big difference on the energy front,” McGuire said, noting Lockheed’s 60 years of research on nuclear fusion as a potential energy source that is safer and more efficient than current reactors based on nuclear fission.

I’ve been very skeptical when past nuclear fusion claims were made (cold fusion, anyone?), but Lockheed’s proposal looks very promising to this retired reactor op. If it works, the technology will upend not only the energy sector, but also the politically charged debates surrounding foreign policy, the environment and more.

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  1. Belt Inactive
    Belt
    @Belt

    A friend just shared this article on Facebook.  It would be awesome to be able to leapfrog fission reactors.  A couple of comments though…

    First, what’s the nuclear engineering equivalent of the computer tech term ‘vaporware?’  Every five years or so we get a flurry of articles out about fusion reactors just around the corner, and we’re still waiting.  I’d want to see a working model before I put any sort of credence in their press releases.

    Second, this would revolutionize industry and energy usage in general.  But before the transportation sector can be cracked, we need better battery technology.  For transportation, energy generation is no good without energy storage.

    • #1
  2. Tom Meyer Contributor
    Tom Meyer
    @tommeyer

    Wow. This is (potentially) huge.

    • #2
  3. user_522280 Inactive
    user_522280
    @StevenJones

    One of the favorite canards of press and the left is that conservatives oppose alternative energy. Wrong! We oppose inefficient, unreliable, and expensive forms of energy. A reliable, efficient fusion reactor would be a welcome development, and a boon to mankind.

    • #3
  4. user_1029039 Inactive
    user_1029039
    @JasonRudert

    This is bittersweet, because if it does come to fruition, we will never be able to use it in this country. The day this thing becomes viable is the day the environmentalist backlash begins. You may see them in China or India, though.

    • #4
  5. Xennady Member
    Xennady
    @

    I’m sure China will prosper from this, as no doubt they’ve already stolen all the engineering plans and technical data.

    But in the United States, the greens will sue and sue and sue until any hope that this technology will ever be utilized here is abandoned.

    Too bad there isn’t a political party here that will ever find the guts and sense to tell the truth to the American people about these insane radicals and their vile, evil schemes.

    • #5
  6. Trink Coolidge
    Trink
    @Trink

    Thank you for the explanation.

    Good news when we could really use some.

    • #6
  7. user_10225 Member
    user_10225
    @JohnDavey

    A small prediction: As with all new technology, it will prohibitively expensive to start with, adoption will take time, and naysayers will complain. An Elon Musk-esque wunderkid will make big splashes and seek Federal or state support for facilities to ramp up.

    I would be overjoyed if this comes to fruition in a timely manner, and without a second party glomming onto the distribution side or other ancillary areas to add to the cost.

    • #7
  8. Constantinus Magnus Coolidge
    Constantinus Magnus
    @ConstantinusMagnus

    The nuclear fusion reactor — will it really “revolutionize power development, creating cheap, sustainable energy at low cost and with minimal environmental impact” or is it just another “international Communist conspiracy to sap and impurify all of our precious bodily fluids?”  

    • #8
  9. user_7742 Inactive
    user_7742
    @BrianWatt

    Let’s see now. How can Obama and the EPA foul up this effort? Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?

    • #9
  10. Julia PA Inactive
    Julia PA
    @JulesPA

    What scares me in that article is that SkunkWorks is looking for partners in industry and government.

    leave the government out of it, unless you want it Ebol-ized.

    • #10
  11. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    U.S. Develops Fusion – Vladimir Putin and Guys Wearing Bedsheets in Middle East Hardest Hit

    • #11
  12. user_3444 Coolidge
    user_3444
    @JosephStanko

    Cool!  Now when do I get my flying car?

    • #12
  13. Jon Gabriel, Ed. Admin
    Jon Gabriel, Ed.
    @jon

    anonymous: I certainly hope it works, and from a first glance there doesn’t appear to be any law of physics which would rule out such a device. But the devil is in the details, and the devil has been plaguing fusion projects for more than 60 years. For example, just as with ITER, this device will have to breed its tritium by neutron irradiation of a lithium blanket. But how, precisely, does this work? In ITER, there is this grotesque robotic mechanism which changes out blanket segments for re-processing. I’m not sure how this scales into something which fits into a cargo container or is the size of a jet engine. Well, they say that in five years or so they’ll have a prototype. After waiting for fusion since the 1960s, my inclination is, let’s wait and see.

    I was hoping you would weigh in, John. I, too, was surprised Lockheed would promote this so early in the process, especially with a claim it could be operational in 10 years. Let’s hope the promise is fulfilled this time.

    • #13
  14. captainpower Inactive
    captainpower
    @captainpower

    I’m trying not to get excited. Time to go see what other info I can dig up.

    Update: Ah, the dreaded “technology is 5-10 years away” disclaimer. We may never hear about this again.

    Lockheed Martin aims to develop compact reactor prototype in five years, production unit in 10

    via

    OP’s link: http://aviationweek.com/technology/skunk-works-reveals-compact-fusion-reactor-details

    Here’s another link from the comments section over there.

    http://www.electronics-eetimes.com/en/cheap-fusion-beats-fossil-fuels.html?cmp_id=7&news_id=222922663&vID=1907

    • #14
  15. user_1938 Inactive
    user_1938
    @AaronMiller

    What are typically called “oil companies” are essentially “energy companies” which acknowledge the supreme cost-efficiency of fossil fuels in the present market. If fusion energy does prove viable, practical, and cost-efficient, then expect oil companies to gradually add fusion production to their repertoire.

    That is, if the government will let them. I agree with others that modern politicians and bureaucrats would interfere and/or extort the industry for kickbacks like never before… because they never before had so much power.

    • #15
  16. captainpower Inactive
    captainpower
    @captainpower

    A quick refresh from atomic insights seems to yield the following ideas:

    Fission works fine, but people are wrongly afraid of it (thanks media).

    So nuclear proponents are searching for a way to make fusion happen to placate those who are afraid, but failing.

    Every few years there is someone who says they have fusion, but it never pans out.

    Meanwhile, we don’t approve new fission nuclear reactors, and the government reneges on promises of building a facility at Yucca mountain to store material (which is less necessary since we have seen how well France’s nuclear plant designs recycle fuel).

    I am calming down now. But I hope I am wrong.

    • #16
  17. jetstream Inactive
    jetstream
    @jetstream

    Joseph Stanko:Cool! Now when do I get my flying car?

    You can buy a flying car today. The problem with flying cars is you actually have to know how to fly, deal with bad weather blah blah blah .. I think what you and all of us really want is what George Jetson drives.

    • #17
  18. aaronl@hotmail.com Inactive
    aaronl@hotmail.com
    @TheLopez

    Ok, guy with an art degree here. I can understand the basic concepts of fission and fusion and the relative safety of each method.

    Now, this has been bothering me for more than a decade so here goes: How 2 Hydrogen atoms with an atomic weight of 1 can combine into one Helium atom with the atomic weight of 4?

    I hit calculus like a bug on a windshield back in college so please be gentle.

    • #18
  19. Julia PA Inactive
    Julia PA
    @JulesPA

    The Lopez:Ok, guy with an art degree here. I can understand the basic concepts of fission and fusion and the relative safety of each method.

    Now, this has been bothering me for more than a decade so here goes: How 2 Hydrogen atoms with an atomic weight of 1 can combine into one Helium atom with the atomic weight of 4?

    I hit calculus like a bug on a windshield back in college so please be gentle.

    ok, the gal with a music degree…be nice to me.

    The post said two hydrogen atoms. The diagram shows fusion as deuterium and tritium, which are hydrogen isotopes.

    The link to the Reuters article talks about the fuel for compact fusion:

    Ultra-dense deuterium, an isotope of hydrogen, is found in the earth’s oceans, and tritium is made from natural lithium deposits.”

    I’m gathering that the current limitations in fusion research are the energy needed to access the isotopes and/or create the reaction, and containing the tremendous heat produced by the reaction. 

    Now, someone tell us the rest of the story.

    edit: I see anonymous beat me to it while I was re-reading the article. JW is a super-hero.

    • #19
  20. Hartmann von Aue Member
    Hartmann von Aue
    @HartmannvonAue

    anonymous:

    The Lopez: Now, this has been bothering me for more than a decade so here goes: How 2 Hydrogen atoms with an atomic weight of 1 can combine into one Helium atom with the atomic weight of 4?

    You’re absolutely right, the books gotta balance!

    Practical fusion power is mostly based upon fusion of deuterium (a hydrogen isotope with one proton and one neutron in its nucleus) with tritium (another hydrogen isotope with one proton and two neutrons). Smash them together sufficiently fast and you get a helium nucleus (two protons and two neutrons) plus a neutron left over. The neutron carries away most of the energy from the reaction, so in order to use fusion to generate power, you usually need to capture it and convert it to thermal energy to boil water and power steam turbines to generate electricity. In a practical fusion reactor, some of the neutrons are used to irradiate lithium to produce more tritium to sustain the reaction.

    Deuterium-tritium fusion

    You beat me to it. Thanks- because you found a much cooler graphic.

    Anyway, I hope it works but I have the same doubts as Captain Power for the same reasons.

    • #20
  21. AIG Inactive
    AIG
    @AIG

    You guys realize this is actually…old news ;)

    LM has been talking publicly about this now since about a year ago (November 2013). The media just picked up on this now.

    • #21
  22. PHCheese Inactive
    PHCheese
    @PHCheese

    Joe I remember those in the fifties in popular machancis.

    • #22
  23. PCT Atlas Inactive
    PCT Atlas
    @PCTAtlas

    This is the equivalent of vaporware as mentioned before.  And an old story as also mentioned before.

    That being said, it is a much better avenue to pursue than ITER. The problem with a project as large as ITER isn’t that it may not work, it very well may, but that it will never be economically competetive with any of the alternatives by the time it could be ready which is 2040 at the earliest.

    The other great advantage of compact reactors like the Lockheed design and also compact fission designs is its adaptation to propulsion for earth and space vehicles.

    • #23
  24. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    I am not all that sure about this being vaporware. Lockheed is aware of the risk of promising more than they can deliver, yet they are talking about a prototype in five years. To me, that doesn’t sound like they think they can – they think they already have.

    • #24
  25. Sabrdance Member
    Sabrdance
    @Sabrdance

    My knowledge is probably out of date -when I do energy policy I usually ignore fusion for all the vaporware reasons given above.  However, I was under the impression the problem with fusion reactions wasn’t creating them, it was sustaining and containing them in a way that didn’t require more energy than the reaction produced.

    At the end of the day, we still have to convert that released energy into steam without blowing up the power plant.

    • #25
  26. Umbra Fractus Inactive
    Umbra Fractus
    @UmbraFractus

    Aaron Miller: That is, if the government will let them. I agree with others that modern politicians and bureaucrats would interfere and/or extort the industry for kickbacks like never before… because they never before had so much power.

    Just like E-cigs. Someone dares to fix the problem in a way that denies the technocrats their opportunity to assert greater control, and therefore it must be stopped.

    • #26
  27. PCT Atlas Inactive
    PCT Atlas
    @PCTAtlas

    The problem with nuclear energy both fusion and fission isn’t technical but political and economic.  By political I mean more public relations and educational.

    Political resistance leads to increased regulation and not in my backyard problems which lead to much higher costs.

    These problems can be somewhat mitigated by lower capital costs associated with compact designs.  Leading to less risk for greater reward for the designs.

    The near future of new energy production would seem to be dominated by natural gas and solar.  Gas because of its low cost and solar because of its political acceptability.

    • #27
  28. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    You can almost hear the usual suspects already:

    “We don’t want to have anything to do with nuclear fusion. We want solar power!”

    • #28
  29. Mister D Member
    Mister D
    @MisterD

    Just tested my Chem students on the nuclear unit today. How appropriate. I’ve been burned too many times in the past to bite this hook. I’ll believe it when I see it.

    • #29
  30. user_1938 Inactive
    user_1938
    @AaronMiller

    anonymous: In a practical fusion reactor, some of the neutrons are used to irradiate lithium to produce more tritium to sustain the reaction.

    I can see the headlines now: “World Lithium Supply Depleted by 2020!” You know, like the world ran out of oil in 1950.

    Still, it would be interesting to see what tangential industries are affected by widespread fusion production.

    • #30
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