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.
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?
To be honest, thoroughly understanding the scope of this challenge and the means in which Lockheed believes they can overcome it is really where nuclear physicists stand out from the crowd, but suffice to say, it breaks down to using superconductors to produce a magnetic field that can house the plasma within the confines of the reaction chamber. The amount of plasma that can be held within a reactor is called it’s “beta limit.” Currently most fusion reactors have maintained a beta limit of around .05. Lockheed’s design, however, could do quite a bit better than that.
“The system is therefore regulated by a self-tuning feedback mechanism, whereby the farther out the plasma goes, the stronger the magnetic field pushes back to contain it. The CFR is expected to have a beta limit ratio of one.” Dr. Thomas McGuire, head of the Skunk Works’ Compact Fusion Project
To get a sense of just how significant a development this new compact fusion reactor could be, Lockheed Martin estimates that the reactor could run constantly, without stopping, for a year on a fuel supply of around 25 pounds of hydrogen isotopes deuterium and tritium. During that time, it would produce a constant supply of 100 megawatts of power, enough to run an entire aircraft carrier or power the homes of nearly 100,000 people.
All with just 25 pounds of fuel, no threat of nuclear meltdown, and very little waste.
While this may sound like science fiction, Lockheed believes they’ll have a prototype system that’s small enough to fit into a shipping container ready to begin testing within the next year or so. Initial plans include powering naval vessels, eliminating a huge amount of bulk required by even the advanced fission reactors used in platforms like the USS Gerald R. Ford, reducing fuel requirements and the risks associated with nuclear powered warships.
More advanced applications, as shown in patent diagrams, could include using smaller fusion reactors to power aircraft. Unlike Russia’s nuclear (fission) powered cruise missiles recently touted in Putin’s address to the Russian people, a fusion powered aircraft would present very little risk of releasing radiation as it flies overhead, and could potentially keep a plane airborn for years.
Of course, as expansive as the military applications for such a method of power production could be, one can’t help but consider the further reaching ramifications of sustainable fusion power. At a million times more efficient than sourcing energy from the traditionally relied upon but politically polarizing methods like burning coal, fusion could make energy production so cost effective that the looming energy crisis humanity has feared for so long could effectively be ended. At least in nations with enough money to adopt fusion power plants as they become feasible.
Such a development could change the face of geopolitics in a number of ways. A reduced reliance on oil could destabilize economies and lead to a significant shift in power and leverage in geopolitics. Massive corporations, in many respects more powerful than entire nations, could face collapse as well. Change this vast, even change with potentially positive results, is always the source of turmoil.
At this point, of course, reliable fusion power remains theoretical – but as the lines between science fiction and non-fiction begin to blur, it appears there could be a revolution in not only the way wars are fought on the horizon but a fundamental shift in why we fight them could be as well.
Feature image courtesy of Lockheed Martin