Don’t expect a coffee maker-sized fusion reactor mounted to the back of your car any time soon, but Lockheed Martin announced Wednesday that they’ve made a technological breakthrough in nuclear fusion technology that could result in nuclear reactors that could fit on the back of a truck – in about a decade.
According to Reuters, Lockheed has been working on the project in secret for several years (under the name “Skunk Works”), but has recently made their nuclear fusion breakthroughs public in an effort to court investors.
Here’s a layman’s explanation of Lockheed’s nuclear fusion breakthrough, thanks to Wired writer Kathleen Palmer. There are two types of nuclear reactors: fission reactors, which power nuclear submarines and most of the world’s nuclear power plants; and fusion reactors. Nuclear fission relies on splitting atoms, which produces nuclear waste that must be stored and disposed of, whereas fusion relies on fusing atoms together, and produces a fraction of the nuclear waste.
The problem is that nuclear fusion produces immense amounts of heat, in the form of plasma, that has to be contained. To do that, you need thick walls – so thick that the only viable fusion reactors available today are the size of buildings. Tom McGuire, head of the Lockheed team working on the project, explains that the plasma issue is what’s been holding back progress so far.
“Plasma confinement is what has plagued all the previous teams.”
The Lockheed team has come up with a way to contain that plasma without the need for thick walls, meaning that, with the right advances in technology, a fusion reactor could eventually be made that could fit on the back of a semi tractor-trailer. Lockheed hopes to have a prototype built and tested within a year, and have a nuclear fusion reactor up and running in 10 years.
However, Nathan Gilliland, CEO of Canadian fusion company General Fusion, tells Wired that such a fusion reactor has been 10 years away for going on 60 years now.
“Some key parts of the prototype are theoretical and not yet proven.”
Still, if Lockheed can get the small-scale fusion reactor to work, it would represent a cosmic shift in energy production. Nuclear fusion reactors would use deuterium-tritium fuel, which according to Reuters produces ten million times as much energy as an equivalent amount of fossil fuels. And Mr. McGuire believes that a different source of fuel could eventually be found, eliminating the problem of nuclear waste entirely. Such an energy source would compete against the potentially cheap, clean, and limitless solar power that could be harnessed by a proposed space elevator, which a Japanese company hopes to have operational by 2050, according to this Inquisitr report.
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