Lockheed Martin's Compact Fusion technology has the potential to revolutionize life as we know it. Maybe. If it works.
After years of development at the company's legendary Skunkworks facility, Lockheed is coming forward now to find partners in the public and private sector. The main breakthrough is having shrunk the size of the reactor into something about the size of a shipping container.
Here's the deal, and why it could be really cool.
Unlike nuclear fission (the splitting of atoms, like current nuclear reactors), fusion does as its name suggests, it fuses atoms together. This is what our sun does to create sunburns and life and stuff.
Fission is messy, and leaves all sorts of nastiness behind (that is, radioactive waste that's untouchable for, well let's just say effectively forever). Fusion power, on the other hand, is much cleaner. In the case of the current version of Lockheed's Compact Fusion tech, they're using deuterium (found in seawater), and tritium (found in lithium, found in the ground). This fuel mix can result in "10 million times more energy than the same amount of fossil fuels." Future versions could use different fuel.
Tom McGuire, who heads the program, explains their method like this, "Our compact fusion concept combines several alternative magnetic confinement approaches, taking the best parts of each, and offers a 90 percent size reduction over previous concepts."
Perhaps the most interesting part of Lockheed's announcement is how small the reactor is. They're saying their reactor could be built in a factory, then shipped anywhere in the world, since it's the size of a "large truck."
The idea, in the short term, is to connect fusion reactors to existing power plants. So instead of burning gas, the power plant will use the heat from the fusion reactor.
Lockheed's saying they expect to get to a prototype within five years. They're discussing this now in the hopes of attracting more partners to speed up the process.
Of course we should all be skeptical, since this isn't the first time promises of fusion have been made. But since Lockheed Martin is a publicly traded company, it's unlikely they'd be talking about something like this if they didn't think it was feasible.
So let's daydream for a second. What if this is the breakthrough that leads us to the fusion age? Clean, eventually cheap, power for everyone. Let's think about that.
Lockheed, being a defense contractor, is first talking about powering military vessels. Yeah, sure, whatever...boring.
Most of the world's most serious issues are solvable with cheap power.
Lack of water is a power issue. The Earth's surface is over 70 percent water, almost all of that undrinkable seawater. Converting seawater into potable water is easy...with enough electricity. Cheap power = plenty of water.
Food? How about being able to farm anywhere there's sunshine and access to the ocean? Could the American Southwest be the new farm belt? How about the Sahara?
Transportation and infrastructure? How about airplanes and cargo ships that never need refueling. Add in some self-driving drone tech...
And, of course, the big one. Getting humanity off fossil fuels. Cleaner energy means fewer greenhouse gasses, potentially halting climate change (at however bad it is at that point), and giving us an alternative energy source before we run out of dino carcasses.
Then there's the world's beyond. Compact fusion reactors mean space travel can be faster. Anyone want to help terraform Mars for their retirement years?
The potential of fusion can't really be overstated. Nearly unlimited clean energy is the stuff of sci-fi. But like many things in science fiction, it often becomes science fact. However, nowhere in its announcement did Lockheed discuss how much power its reactor is producing, only how much it could produce. In fact, the company even said it expects to "design, build and test the [Compact Fusion Reactor]" within the year. So we're not there yet.
But is this size breakthrough the long-awaited first step towards the fusion age? I really want to believe it is.
We shall see...