LOCKHEED MARTIN’S SKUNKWORKS (you know the team that designed the world’s fastest and highest flying plane, the legendary SR-71 Blackbird) has stated in a recent presentation that they’ve found a workable form of atomic fusion energy generation, and could be only a decade away from producing a commercially viable compact fusion reactor that would fit on the back of a truck and power 100,000 homes.
Given the recent events in the middle-east, not to mention the massive impact of climate change amid increasing utilisation of fossil fuels, the availability of a workable fusion power option could be the biggest news of the early 21st century.
Where current forms of nuclear energy use materials that can be manufactured into nuclear weapons and leave behind waste by-products that are radioactive for at least 300,000 years, fusion is comparatively clean. For a start, the fuel for the reaction comes from sea water and is plentiful. Fusion reactors are also not prone to toxic meltdowns, and only produce ash, which is only radioactive for a very short time before becoming completely inert.
If a clean abundant form of energy sounds too good to be true, the answer until now has been that there are gotchas. WhilE the principles of nuclear fusion have been well understood since the 1950s (fusion is the process that the sun uses to generate heat and light), the fusion reactors built so far have required more energy than they’ve created, rendering them into little more than hugely expensive scientific curiosities.
The current crop of fusion reactor designs are based on what is called a Tokamak, a giant cylinder which generates power using huge magnetic fields to contain the superheated plasma that is many times the temperature of the surface of the sun. These are huge affairs (the ITER Tokomak being built in France is over 30 metres tall and occupies the equivalent of half a football field) requiring billions of euros to build and operate, which has seen research limited to large scale multi-government research projects.
Enter stage left, Lockheed skunkworks. Their new fusion reactor can be assembled using low cost production line techniques, and the actual reactor is also said to be small enough to fit on the back of a truck.
They’ve cleverly come up with a magnetic plasma containment technique that is far stronger and more efficient, and it is this that could in theory make nuclear fusion viable. Should their research bear fruit over the next decade, the Skunkworks team say they could have commercially viable fusion power plants by 2022, which is up to 50 years earlier than even the most enthusiastic forecasts of most industry pundits.
The implications of abundant clean energy are staggering. Not only has fusion the potential to significantly alter an increasingly unstable geo-political marketplace, but it could also revolutionise automotive design by making electric cars far more economical. Space travel could also potentially be revolutionised, with fusion-based propulsion techniques dramatically speeding up trip times between planets. Most importantly of all however, is the relatively clean nature of fusion which could see a massive reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.
The multi-billion dollar question is: will it happen? Even though Skunkworks are upbeat and their approach appears to be as ingenious as it is revolutionary, the tech sector is littered with proclamations and announcements around workable fusion energy that have yet to deliver. Given the potential fusion has for positive change however, I for one am hoping for a workable Mr Fusion unit for the delorean I plan to buy in 2022. PAT PILCHER