By Jonny Wakefield
October 23, 2014
A U.S. aerospace company says it hopes to have a commercially viable fusion reactor on the market within a decade.
A research team working out of Lockheed Martin's Skunk Works lab recently unveiled its compact fusion reactor project, an ambitious plan to build a reactor that derives energy from the fusion of hydrogen isotopes.
A small fusion reactor could potentially power planes, ships, cities, even spacecraft, the company says.
Thomas McGuire, the scientist helming the project, told Aviation Week that his team hopes to have a working prototype online within five years. They aim to have a commercial model in ten.
"[The prototype] wouldn't be at full power, like a working concept reactor, but basically just showing that all the physics works," said McGuire, who is an aeronautical engineer with Skunk Works.
The Lockheed Martin design is potentially revolutionary due to its small size. One fusion reactor under development in France is expected to weigh 23,000 tons. A 100 megawatt T4, as the Lockheed model is known, would be roughly 23 feet by 43 feet.
Nuclear fusion is a process in which energy is produced by containing a reaction of radioactive isotopes.
The energy generated in that reaction is contained within strong magnetic fields. The isotopes, which carry the same charge, are unable to overcome their natural repulsion because of the containment, and fuse as a result. That creates immense heat, which is eventually used to turn a turbine.
The Lockheed scientists believe they've created a containment mechanism that is around ten times more efficient than other reactors.
Fission reactors, on the other hand, get their power from the splitting of atoms. Fusion is considered a safer, cleaner and more powerful alternative to nuclear fission, which currently powers reactors around the world.
Because isotopes used in the fusion reaction can be produced from sea water and lithium, the fuel for such a reactor is potentially limitless."We already mine enough lithium to supply a worldwide fleet of reactors," McGuire said.
At least one Canadian company, Burnaby-based General Fusion, is in the race to solve the fusion puzzle. Founded in 2002, General Fusion's mission is to develop "the fastest, most practical, and lowest cost path to fusion energy," according to a release.
Like Lockheed Martin, General Fusion aims to develop its reactor using private sector dollars, instead of waiting for government. Publicly funded fusion projects have tended to be the norm. Canadian Business notes that Canada is not among the 35 countries that have partnered to build the $23 billion International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor project in France.
As of 2011, General Fusion had not tested any of its reactors with radioactive material. At that time, energy minister Rich Coleman told the CBC that B.C. would have to review its laws ahead of any test, since the province currently prohibits nuclear power.