Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works division has done some pretty incredible things. It’s where the U-2 spy plane and the alien-looking F-117 Nighthawk came to life. And now, it’s where a team of researchers are working on a nuclear energy concept that might finally meet the world’s insatiable demand for power. Maybe.
Current nuclear energy plants rely on nuclear fission, the process where atoms are split to release a gargantuan amount energy. Nuclear fusion is different. Rather than splitting atoms to release energy, atoms are fused together with the same result. And it’s a much safer way to produce energy. The risk of nuclear meltdowns doesn’t exist with fusion reactors.
We haven’t seen fusion plants up and running yet because the process that drives nuclear fusion is far more sophisticated than nuclear fission. Fusion fuel is commonly made made up of two versions of hydrogen: deuterium and tritium. After those isotopes are injected into a containment vessel, energy is introduced by radio-frequency heating. The hydrogen gas then heats up and breaks apart into ions and electrons to form a plasma. A magnetic field within the vessel contains this super hot plasma, keeping it from touching the sides and forcing it into the center of the space. This force overpowers the repulsion of ions within the plasma, causing them to collide and fuse.
This reaction yields the supervillian-sounding helium-4, freeing other particles which then carry energy though the confining magnetic field to the vessel walls. Heat exchangers — like in your air conditioner — then harness that heat and use it to drive steam-powered turbine generators.
The Joint European Torus is Europe’s largest attempt at a tokamak-style fusion reactor.
The biggest limiting factor in fusion reactors up until now has been the plasma control system. The most common is a device called a tokamak, which was invented in the 1950s by Soviet physicists. Tokamaks use a magnetic field to constrain the plasma in the shape of a doughnut and electricity running through the plasma to retain that shape. But tokamaks can only hold so much plasma, and the energy put out by the system is almost as much as is needed to contain the plasma. Breaking even isn’t exactly what you want in an energy system.
But Lockheed’s Compact Fusion Reactor is different. Namely, it tackles the plasma containment problem differently. Rather than constraining the plasma in a series of doughnuts, it uses superconducting coils to generate a magnetic field to contain the plasma. It’s basically a self-regulating system that confines the plasma more and more each time the plasma pushes out against the field keeping it in.
It sounds too good to be true, and it might be.
Lockheed’s announcement has already been met with significant criticism. Skunk Works hasn’t yet released any studies or data pertaining to the project that other scientists can study. If a fusion reactor really is close, that kind of secrecy shouldn’t be surprising. But then again, it’s hard to engender confidence that way (though the publicity alone is reason enough to make an announcement like this).
So far, physicists and engineers are skeptical of the design, which has a 100-foot tall, 23,000 ton reactor running at 200 million degrees. But Skunk Works has a long line of previous research to pull from (research that never quite got the plasma going). But time will tell. Lockheed remains confident that it is on the way to revolutionizing the way we produce energy within the next decade.