Anyone who has watched movies out of Hollywood since the 1950’s has appreciated the fantastical technology of Fusion Reactors creating clean abundant energy out of simple water in some high-tech far off future. For those that follow science headlines, there have been claims of real Fusion technology being just 30 years away. The 30 years projection has been the same since the 1950’s. Last month Lockheed Martin announced they have a new design that can bring the ultimate in clean abundant energy into use within 10 years and a working prototype in just 5 years. In this month’s publication of The Economist, they lay out all the facts so far.
Oct. 16th, 2014 | The Economist | Science and Technology
A team at Lockheed’s renowned Skunk Works, where its wilder (and often secret) ideas are developed, reckons fusion is ripe for a rethink. Attempts to harness the types of reaction that power the sun and hydrogen bombs to generate electricity go back to the 1950s. The latest, a device called ITER, is currently under construction in France. Fusion is attractive in principle. It does not generate the same amount of nasty, long-lived radioactive waste that its cousin nuclear fission does. Its principal fuel is deuterium, an isotope of hydrogen that is found in water and is thus in limitless supply. And a fusion reactor would be incapable of having a meltdown. But it is hard in practice. Reactors like ITER, known as tokamaks, are huge and temperamental undertakings. Even when they work as prototypes, they do not look the stuff of commercial power generation.
As Tom McGuire, who is leading the Lockheed team, reckons his design could deliver a 100MW reactor (able to power 80,000 homes) of about seven meters in diameter, weighing less than 1,000 tons. Indeed, smaller versions might fit on a large lorry.
Dr McGuire’s design is, however, just that—a design. And therein lies the rub. Lockheed says the plan is to have a working prototype running in five years and the first operational reactors in ten. For that to happen, Dr. McGuire needs the help of other fusion experts, which is why the firm is going public now. Nevertheless, though ten years is not 30, it is still quite a long time. Those who think commercial fusion power really does have a future are advised not to hold their breath.
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Whether Dr. McGuire’s team over at Lockheed Martin will deliver on their promise and finally deliver fusion power in mass or fall short as so many have done before remains to be seen. After so many decades of tossing around the notion, skepticism will likely continue to be the general view until a working prototype shows real promise. One thing is for certain though. The potential for energy independence, the limitless energy source and its ramifications on society, business and our future are undeniable. It is certainly something to follow and likely to cause a paradigm shift in our world’s economy if it comes to fruition.