Could the future of fusion driven rockets for interplantary or even interstellar travel be near at hand? Engineers at the Lockheed-Martin Skunk Works believe they will have a compact fusion reactor prototype operational in five years and in use within 10 years. (Illustration Credit:© David A. Hardy/www.astroart.org,  Project Daedalus)

Mr. Fusion? Compact Fusion Reactor Will be Available in 5 Years Says Lockheed-Martin

Article Updated: 23 Dec , 2015

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The Farnsworth Fusor; Pons and Fleishmann. It seems the trail to fusion energy has long gone cold — stone cold, that is, and not cold as in cold fusion. Despite the promise of fusion providing a sustainable and safe energy source, fusion reactors are not a dime a dozen and they won’t be replacing coal fired power plants any time soon. Or will they? Lockheed-Martin Skunk Works announced a prototype compact fusion reactor that could be ready within five years. This revelation has raised eyebrows and sparked moments of enthusiasm.

But, let’s considers this story and where it all fits in both the history and future.

For every Skunk Works project that has made the runway such as the Stealth Fighter or SR-71 Blackbird, there are untold others that never see the light of day. This adds to the surprise and mystery of Lockheed-Martin’s willingness to release images and a detailed narrative describing a compact fusion reactor project. The impact that such a device would have on humanity can be imagined … and at the same time one imagines how much is unimaginable.

Lockheed-Martin engineers in the Skunkworks prepare a vessel, one component of an apparatus that they announced will lead to nuclear fusion in a truck-sized reactor within 5 years. An international effort is underway in Europe to create the worlds first practical tokamak fusion reactor, a much larger and costlier design that has never achieved the long sought "breakeven" point. (Photo Credit: Lockheed-Martin)

Lockheed-Martin engineers in the Skunkworks prepare a vessel, one component of an apparatus that they announced will lead to nuclear fusion in a truck-sized reactor within 5 years. An international effort is underway in Europe to create the world’s first practical tokamak fusion reactor, a much larger and costlier design that has never achieved the long sought “breakeven” point. (Photo Credit: Lockheed-Martin)

The program manager of the Skunk Works’ compact fusion reactor experiment is Tom Maguire. Maguire and his team places emphasis on the turn-around time for modifying and testing the compact fusion device. With the confidence they are expressing in their design and the ability to quickly build, test and modify, they are claiming only five years will be needed to reach a prototype.

What exactly the prototype represents was left unexplained, however. Maguire continues by saying that in 10 years, the device will be seen in military applications and in 20 years it will be delivered to the world as a replacement for the dirty energy sources that are in use today. Military apps at 10 years means that the device will be too expensive initially for civilian operations but such military use would improve performance and lower costs which could lead to the 20 year milestone moment if all goes as planned.

Their system uses magnetic confinement, the same basic principle behind the tokamak toroidal plasma confinement system that has received the greatest attention and government funding for over 50 years.

The ITER Tokamak Fusion Reactor is expected to begin operational testing in 2020 and begin producing deuterium-tritium fusion reactions in 2027. (Credits: ITER, Illus. T.Reyes)

The ITER Tokamak Fusion Reactor is expected to begin operational testing in 2020 and begin producing deuterium-tritium fusion reactions in 2027. (Credits: ITER, Illus. T.Reyes)

The International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) is currently under construction in Europe under the assumption that it will be the first net energy producing fusion generator ever. It is funded by the European Union, India, Japan, People’s Republic of China, Russia, South Korea and the United States. But there are cost over-runs and its price has gone from $5 billion to $50 billion.

ITER is scheduled to begin initial testing in 2019 about the time Lockheed-Martin’s compact fusion reactor prototype is expected. If Lockheed-Martin succeeds in their quest, they will effectively have skunked ITER and laid to waste a $50 billion international effort at likely 1/1000th the cost.

There are a few reasons Lockheed-Martin has gone out on a limb. Consider the potential. One ton of Uranium used in Fission reactors has as much energy as 1,500 tons of coal. But fission reactors produce radioactive waste and are a finite resource without breeder reactors, themselves a nuclear proliferation risk. Fusion produces 3 to 4 times more energy per reaction than fission. Additionally, the fuel — isotopes of hydrogen — is available from sea water — which is nearly limitless — and the byproducts are far less radioactive than with fission. Fusion generators once developed could provide our energy needs for millions of years.

More pragmatically, corporations promote their R&D. They are in a constant state of competition. They present a profile that ranges from the practical to the cutting edge to instill confidence in their Washington coffers. Furthermore, their competitors have high profile individuals and projects. A fusion project demonstrates that Lockheed-Martin is doing more than creating better mouse-traps.

To date, no nuclear fusion reactor has achieved breakeven. This is when the fusion device outputs as much energy as is input to operate it. Magnetic confinement such as the various tokamak designs, Lawrence Livermore’s laser-based inertial confinement method, and even the simple Philo Farnsworth Fusor can all claim to be generating energy from fusion reactions. They are just all spending more energy than their devices output.

An example of a homemade Fusor. Originally invented in the 1960s by the inventor of the television, Philo Farnsworth. (Credit: Wikipedia, W.Jack)

An example of a homemade Fusor. Originally invented in the 1960s by the inventor of the television, Philo Farnsworth. (Credit: Wikipedia, W.Jack)

The fusor, invented in the 1960s by Farnsworth and Hirsh, is a electrostatic plasma confinement system. It uses electric fields to confine and accelerate ions through a central point at which some ions will collide with sufficient energy to fuse. Although the voltage needed is readily achieved by amateurs – about 4000 volts – not uncommon in household devices, no fusor has reached breakeven and theoretically never will. The challenge to reaching breakeven involves not just energy/temperature but also plasma densities. Replicating conditions that exist in the core of stars in a controllable way is not easy. Nevertheless, there is a robust community of “fusioneers” around the world and linked by the internet.

Mr Fusion, the compact fusion reactor that drove the 21st Century version of the DeLorian in Back to the Future. The movie trilogy grossed $1 billion at the box office. Mr Fusion could apparently function off of any water bearing material. (Credit: Universal Pictures)

Mr Fusion, the compact fusion reactor that drove the 21st Century version of the DeLorean in Back to the Future. The movie trilogy grossed $1 billion at the box office. Mr Fusion could apparently function off of any water bearing material. (Credit: Universal Pictures)

It remains to be seen who, what and when a viable fusion reactor will be demonstrated. With Lockheed-Martin’s latest announcement, once again, fusion energy is “just around the corner.” But many skeptics remain who will quickly state that commercial fusion energy remains 50 years in the future. So long as Maguire’s team meets milestones with expected performance improvements, their work will go on. The potential of fusion energy remains too great to dismiss categorically.

Source: Lockheed-Martin Products Page, Compact Fusion

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23 Responses

  1. Richard Kirk says:

    This is weird. It doesn’t actually say anything other than some senior executive in Lockheed-Martin wants to sell his stock options.

    It ‘s possible these guys are actually making something smart, like a Bussard polywell reactor with meson catalysis. That ring thing looked a bit like a part of a polywell. But somehow, the presentation doesn’t feel right. Anyone else get this?

  2. jearley says:

    ‘Tomahawk’ designs? Got to love autocorrect…

  3. Jason says:

    Dense production of clean and safe energy in space, with no risk of radiation damage to the crewmembers, is a steady step for interstellar journeys. http://youtu.be/u8n7j5k-_G8

  4. FredZ says:

    “Fusion produces 3 to 4 times more energy per reaction than fission.” What exactly is the basis for this nonsense? Remember E=mc2? A U-235 fission reaction releases 200 MeV; a D-T fusion reaction releases 17.6 MeV; 14.1 MeV of which is in the form of kinetic energy of a neutron. In grade school they told us that 200 was bigger than 17.6.

    I can assure you that you wouldn’t want to be anywhere near an operating 100 MW D-T fusion reactor because of these neutrons and the gammas produced by nuclear activation.

    A “compact fusion reactor” is an absurdity, and anyone familiar with this technology would know that. More background info on nuclear fusion is at: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nuclear_fusion

    These Lockheed people must be delusional.

    • Tim Reyes says:

      Thanks. If you consider the reactions relative to the atomic mass that’s involved then the comparison is as stated in the article. This is important for aircraft or spacecraft but not so much for a stationary power plant. Extracting, processing and working with the U is probably more trouble due to its weight besides being rarer. Isotopes of H should become pretty cheap once you have cheap fusion reactors providing cheap electricity.

      I side with you and the skeptics on the chances of L-M’s design being a breakthrough. One advantage L-M has is money. These other “compact” designs have no one with deep pockets. The Feds won’t fund L-M until they show something above the norm for progress.

      As far as the fusion energy, yes, a neutron which can be slowed by moderator and also has a half-life of ~15 minutes. The neutron decays into a proton (hydrogen ion), an electron and a anti-neutrino and maybe a gamma ray added. I’d have to read up more on how they plan to manage all the neutrons generated – moderated, absorbed, decay. My studies involved cold plasmas outside the realm of plasmas found in the cores of stars.

  5. postman1 says:

    If it pans out, this might be a viable power source for VASIMR.

    • Tony Mach says:

      Yeah, on the condition that VASIMR pans out… there are people (*cough* Zubrin *cough*) who make a very very good case that VASIMR and reality can not be reconciled.

      I for one am sceptical of the real world applicability of Lockheed-Matrin’s fusion concept, but they might have hit something. But VASIMIR?

      And fusion will take decades to develop, no matter how optimistic Lockheed-Martin is. If you need better power than current fission reactors supply, why not use a physical principle that has already actually worked on a 7.4 MW (thermal) level? Why not develop a Thorium/LFTR reactor? And if you need efficiency (high specific impulse) for uncrewed missions, you use can “conventional” nuclear electric propulsion with evolved “conventional” ion drives. And if you need high thrust (for crewed missions), you can use “conventional” nuclear thermal. Just take what is already there and develop it further. You do not need to invent any challenging new physical operating principles to fly a spacecraft in our solar system – it’s an engineering question, not a fundamental physics question, just take what we already know and use, scale it up.

      However what you need to do is make “up mass” to LEO cheaper – and for that, neither fusion nor fission will help you, nor any fancy make-believe electric drive. To make up mass cheaper, you need fully and cheaply reusable launch vehicle (*cough* Musk *cough*).

  6. BCstargazer says:

    I can just see the moment it’s turned on …
    http://youtu.be/Xj1CDU_wd-4

  7. papayaman says:

    Hopefully, this can continue to be developed without the Koch bros., who have an avowed intent to make us totally dependent on fossil fuels at least for their life-time, to find a way to minimize or squelch this so their profits are not in any way threatened with diminishment.

    • And so you think the Koch brothers control oil production in the world, how nieve, or worse, politcally correct in your mind. The only reason oil prices are being driven down by Saudi’s is because our quickly advancing U.S. energy independence needs to be slowed down so they can protect their oil profits, it has nothing to do with Koch brothers. Oil prices have been controlled and manipulated for decades, and if you go back in history, prices always drop when new exploration or alternative energy sources are disclosed.

      LM should be encouraged, not attacked by all the naysayers on fusion development, and why are there naysayers, because once again the powers that be want to control fission remains dominant energy source. Why else was P and F attacked when they were forced by university of UT released their results and labeled it cold fusion. It is all about greed, and God forbid if grant money faucet was cut off and then redirected to cold fusion research. These attacks on cold fusion have been obvious for decades, and sadly, has slowed progress if not destroyed future research, so good for LM for developing a safer and more efficient energy source. And you think the Koch brothers are controlling oil industry, hardly a main player in price controlling.

  8. The spacecraft picture puzzles me. One assumes there is a fusion reactor on board. How does it generate thrust?

  9. snowfist says:

    That appears to the an image of the proposed Project Daedalus starship which is performance wise probably the goal of fusion rocket research taking place now. Daedalus was to generate thrust through a very quick series of fusion micro explosions. You can read about it here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Project_Daedalus

  10. dangerdad says:

    This isn’t news, it’s a press release. There is no evidence that this is anything other than vaporware. No evidence that they’ve solved any of the problems that other methods have encountered. Let us know when they prove anything.

  11. wolfspelz says:

    “It seems the trail to fusion energy has long gone cold” – Please see the current list of fusion projects. There are many credible non-cold fusion, non-tokamak projects: http://nextbigfuture.com/2014/10/updated-prospects-for-commercial.html.

    This article was far below the (usually high) science level of Universe Today. The author should really research the topic instead of hunting puns on cold fusion.

    The author might learn a lot from reading an insider’s view on the Lockheed announcement. http://thepolywellblog.blogspot.de/2014/10/lockheed-blew-it.html It tells why this is not just funny or curious as it looks for people who only know about cold fusion and ITER.

    • Tim Reyes says:

      Mind you, it was just one pun on cold fusion. I reviewed your two sources (links). I would recommend these to readers, too. The Polywell Blog article – “Lockheed Blew It” is in line with the skepticism that experts are expressing. The Blog article explains how it negatively impacts the quest because of how little information was released and the means it was released. There is not “a lot” to learn from the blog article but it emphasizes how it damages the prospects for funding others that are maybe more legitimate.

      I’ve now read some of the other articles on the net and mine fits fairly among them. Universe Today approaches science news from various angles. There are a number of writers. Some stories delve into details while others are more straight news. As the Blog article and for example, MIT Tech Review states, there isn’t a lot of detail. I’d agree that it could be damaging especially if L-M suddenly receives explicit government funding and then fails. So my story worked with what little info was there, compared it to the high profile projects, expressed skepticism, played with it a bit, but left it to – lets see what they do – and that potential of fusion is too great to dismiss even after 60 years of trying. For those concerned that L-M’s will damage the “community”, my article doesn’t raise people’s hopes.

      • Tony Mach says:

        My impression with “nextbigfuture” is that the people writing there are “a bit” overoptimistic and undercritical with regards to scientific and technological claims, to put it mildly. And instead of writing clear articles, they dump countless mildly on-topic illustrations and technical details into their articles – to paraphrase W.C. Fields, the motto at “nextbigfuture” seems to be: “If you can’t dazzle them with concise writing, baffle them with irrelevant details.”

        So if anybody leads their argument with a “nextbigfuture” article (that is in best “nextbigfuture” filled with countless more or less irrelevant details instead of clearly arguing a point), my BS meter goes off wildly… and then the claim that the “science level” here is low, after having mentioned “nextbigfuture”, now that has something comical to it.

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