Nuclear power, once touted as the wave of the future that would eliminate our reliance on fossil fuels, has lost favor in much of the world after high profile incidents like Chernobyl and Fukushima. Even in the United States, where nuclear power has been overwhelmingly safe, other issues, like the banning of MOX fuel and concerns about where to safely store the nuclear waste produced in our power plants have made the construction of new nuclear facilities all but insurmountable: even people that don’t mind the idea of nuclear power are just reluctant to see a nuclear reactor built in their neighborhoods, let alone its waste stored in vats on site.

The fission reactions we rely on for everything from producing electricity to threatening the annihilation of our nation’s enemies are, for the most part, stable and predictable, but the risks, the costs, and the politics associated with the method of power production have left those seeking alternatives to fossil fuels looking to solar and wind powered alternatives. However, a new patent, quietly obtained by Lockheed Martin in February, could change the very face of how our planet conducts business. Just as soon as it’s done changing the way we conduct warfare.

Fusion power generators technically have existed for some time, but never in a form that has proven efficient enough to actually use. Unlike fission, which produces energy by splitting an atom, fusion works in the exact opposite way: fusing four hydrogen atoms together to produce heavier helium. Fission is the process that fuels stars like our sun, using a combination of the immense amount of pressure in the star center and temperatures in excess of 15 million degrees to mash hydrogen atoms into helium. As each bond takes place, a small amount of energy is released – and poof, you have a star.

Unlike fission reactions, there’s no threat of a runaway chain reaction in a fusion reactor that would lead to a catastrophic meltdown like the world saw in Chernobyl or Fukushima, nor does the process produce vast amounts of nuclear waste as we’ve seen in fission reactors. In every sense of the word, a fusion reactor would just be better than most of the forms of energy production we have available today … there’s just one catch, though.

The sun is able to produce reliable fusion reactions because of the nearly unimaginable amounts of pressure at its core supplementing the immense temperatures needed to fuse atoms together. Here on earth, we don’t have the means to produce that type of pressure, so we have to compensate with incredibly high temperatures. How high? Try 100,000,000 degrees Celsius. This creates two distinct problems with the idea of using fusion, rather than fission, to power our aircraft carriers or houses: the amount of energy required to produce such incredible temperatures, and finding a way to contain plasma burning six times hotter than the center of the sun.

For a time, this limitation led many scientists and researchers to try to find a way to produce a fusion reaction at a lower temperature. The concept of “cold fusion” was born, though widely discredited in the 1980s, however – prompting most in the field to work instead of trying to find a way to reliable produce and contain a fusion reaction in an efficient way – and it would seem that Lockheed might have done precisely that.

The patent filed by Lockheed Martin is for a part of the fusion reaction confinement system they’ve produced – and included some incredible potential applications for a fusion reactor that would not only be efficient and containable, but could be small enough to house within the fuselage of an F-16 fighter jet.

In Lockheed’s patent application, they include F-16s, aircraft carriers and domestic power plants as potential applications for the technology. (US Patent Office)

This sort of development could fundamentally change the way the entire world does business. A fusion reaction releases exponentially more energy that traditional chemical reactions we rely on from fossil fuels – in fact, it’s estimated that fusion is about a million times more efficient than burning coal or oil to produce energy, but the question remains, how does Lockheed propose to house the gas used in the reaction, superheated to the point of converting to plasma, for long enough to make a fusion reaction sustainable as an energy source?