“Nuclear fusion could provide virtually unlimited amounts of energy for the world. But the problem of harnessing fusion reactions for practical applications has been an elusive one for decades, never progressing beyond the experimental stage—until now.” Michael Cochrane
Nuclear fusion could provide virtually unlimited amounts of energy for the world. But the problem of harnessing fusion reactions for practical applications has been an elusive one for decades, never progressing beyond the experimental stage—until now.
Last month, Aviation Week & Space Technology reported on a nuclear fusion concept being developed at Lockheed Martin’s famous “Skunk Works” R&D lab. The device, called the Compact Fusion Reactor (CFR), is reported to be conceptually “small and practical enough for applications ranging from interplanetary spacecraft and commercial ships to city power stations.”
The current state of the art in fusion reactors, the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), now under construction, is not expected to be online until the late 2020s. Aviation Week’s report states that the ITER, with a power output of 500 megawatts, will cost an estimated $50 billion, will measure around 100 feet high, and weigh 23,000 tons.
“That’s the size we are thinking of now,” said Thomas McGuire, an aeronautical engineer in the Skunk Work’s Revolutionary Technology Programs unit in an interview with Aviation Week. “You could put it on a semi-trailer, similar to a small gas turbine, put it on a pad, hook it up and can be running in a few weeks.”
Fuel for the CFR is plentiful. It runs on deuterium and tritium. Deuterium is derived from seawater, and tritium is obtained from lithium in a breeding reactor. Although the tritium is radioactive, you don’t need much of it to run the reactor, which means there’s no risk of a nuclear meltdown.
Unlike current nuclear reactors that operate using nuclear fission, fusion reactors don’t generate radioactive waste. Once a CFR fusion reactor reaches the end of its useful life, users can dispose of its radioactive parts much as they dispose of medical waste today.
“There is no long-lived radiation,” says McGuire. “Fission reactors’ stuff will be there forever, but with fusion materials, after 100 years then you are good.”
Lockheed Martin plans to have a working CFR prototype in five years, and a full production unit in 10.