The Next Big Thing? Or No Big Deal?
Lockheed Martin has announced that their celebrated engineers in their hi tech Skunk Works technology shop have created a design for a small fusion reactor that could fit in the back of a large truck. The breakthrough could mean that clean, nearly unlimited energy might be just over the horizon.
The discovery could virtually reinvent the world in the same way that the telephone, the jet engine, and the silicon chip have done over the years.
Or not. They don't expect to have a working commercial reactor for a decade and there's no guarantee of success. Still, the Skunk Works has a track record of innovation that is the envy of the world and some of the smartest people on the planet work there.
Lockheed Martin Corp said on Wednesday it had made a technological breakthrough in developing a power source based on nuclear fusion, and the first reactors, small enough to fit on the back of a truck, could be ready for use in a decade.
Tom McGuire, who heads the project, said he and a small team had been working on fusion energy at Lockheed's secretive Skunk Works for about four years, but were now going public to find potential partners in industry and government for their work.
Initial work demonstrated the feasibility of building a 100-megawatt reactor measuring seven feet by 10 feet, which could fit on the back of a large truck, and is about 10 times smaller than current reactors, McGuire told reporters.
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.
In recent years, Lockheed has gotten increasingly involved in a variety of alternate energy projects, including several ocean energy projects, as it looks to offset a decline in U.S. and European military spending.
Lockheed's work on fusion energy could help in developing new power sources amid increasing global conflicts over energy, and as projections show there will be a 40 percent to 50 percent increase in energy use over the next generation, McGuire said.
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.
Lockheed sees the project as part of a comprehensive approach to solving global energy and climate change problems.
Compact nuclear fusion would produce far less waste than coal-powered plants since it would use deuterium-tritium fuel, which can generate nearly 10 million times more energy than the same amount of fossil fuels, the company said.
Ultra-dense deuterium, an isotope of hydrogen, is found in the earth's oceans, and tritium is made from natural lithium deposits.
It said future reactors could use a different fuel and eliminate radioactive waste completely.
Creating small, functional fusion reactors would revolutionize industry, create millions of jobs, and change the way we live. They will be expensive at first - but so were computers. And it isn't it likely that they will be used in autos or even as home energy sources. But the blue sky promise of this new technology means that Lockheed will have no shortage of suitors looking to get in on the ground floor.