Scientists skeptical Lockheed Martin claims about compact fusion reactorExperts were skeptical of Lockheed Martin Corp.‘s claims this week that it plans to build a fusion reactor small enough to fit on the back of a truck over the next decade.
The Bethesda, Maryland-based company — the world’s largest defense contractor, known for its stealth fighter jets and guided missiles — on Wednesday announced that it would test a compact fusion reactor in less than a year, build a prototype in five years and deploy the system in 10 years.
Thomas McGuire, the man behind the project at Lockheed’s famously secretive Skunk Works laboratory in Palmdale, California, was bullish on his team’s approach to the nuclear technology, on which the company holds several patents.Fusion energy has the potential to revolutionize how the military powers its fleets of ships, aircraft and ground vehicles, he said. “A next-generation airplane that doesn’t rely on fuel and can just stay aloft — unlimited range, unlimited endurance,” he said in a promotional video. “That’s what nuclear fusion can do for an airplane.”
Others were less optimistic. After all, creating a fusion reaction in a controlled environment that produces more energy than it consumes has challenged physicists since the dawn of the Atomic Age.
“I’m surprised that a company like this would release something that doesn’t have much context,” said Steven Cowley, a professor in plasma physics at the Imperial College London, director of the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy in Oxfordshire, United Kingdom, and a leading expert in magnetic fusion energy.“Normally, if someone says they’re doing well in fusion, they would quote some data, ‘We got a temperature of x and a confinement of y,’” he said, referring to how long a reactor can hold the heat of a reaction before it escapes. “There’s no such information.”
Fusion, which occurs naturally on the sun and makes energy by fusing atoms, is basically the opposite of fission, which creates energy by splitting them. The latter is the foundation for modern nuclear technology and, for decades, has been used to power everything from aircraft carriers to commercial power plants.
Fusion has long been an attractive potential energy source to physicists because such a reactor could theoretically run on the same kind of hydrogen found in ocean water, produce little waste and avoid a catastrophic meltdown because the process doesn’t lend itself to out-of-control chain reactions.
Earlier this year, scientists at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California reported a breakthrough by generating a fusion reaction that created more energy than it started with. But the experiment didn’t produce enough power to have practical implications.
What’s more, it required far more energy to get the reaction going. (Scientists concentrated 192 lasers on a pellet of hydrogen fuel to compress it and trigger a fusion of the isotopes deuterium and tritium. Only about 1 percent of the energy from the lasers entered the pellet, but the technique, known as “alpha heating,” created a series of nuclear reactions that generated a higher level of particles and heat.)
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