We think the sun is pretty neat. It’s been working hard 24/7 for the last 4.5 billion years, frantically pushing out light and heat. Don’t you wish you had something working that hard for you? Wouldn’t you like a mini-star that you could cart around on the back of a truck, that could provide enough power for your family of four … and 25,000 other families of four, if you feel like sharing?
Professional death-peddlers Lockheed Martin have heard your weird Bond villain dream, and are here for you. (Although they’re mostly here for the U.S. government, to be fair.) They announced Wednesday that their super-secret Skunk Works lab, which typically focuses on stuff that flies, has gotten into the star-making business. Their goal: to create a compact nuclear fusion reactor within five years, and to have it ready for sale within ten.
Since Lockheed Martin is Lockheed Martin, they’re primarily excited about the applications of compact fusion for murder-machines. Nuclear submarines, for instance, have been prowling the lonely oceans for many decades, powered by miniature controlled nuclear explosions (i.e., fission). But a submarine or a plane powered by a compact fusion reactor of the same petite size can put out three to four times as much power as a fission reactor, says Lockheed Martin.
Also, as a fringe benefit, we would be that much closer to avoiding environmental apocalypse. Fission reactions are the angry drunks of the energy world, ready to blow out of control at any moment and kill anywhere between a few to millions of bystanders. Fusion’s more of a shy wallflower; when conditions change, rather than going out of control and creating plasma that overwhelms its containment, the fusion reaction shuts down.
Fusion is also usually powered by deuterium, known as “heavy hydrogen” because it has an extra neutron shoved in there, and tritium, which should be called “really heavy hydrogen” with its two neutrons. Deuterium isn’t common, but isn’t hard to find in Earth’s oceans, and it’s non-radioactive – and therefore a metric buttload safer than the uranium-235 and/or plutonium-239 that powers fission reactors. Tritium’s rarer, but since we use the stuff to illuminate wristwatches we can probably look behind the couch cushions (or do some hocus-pocus to some lithium) and scour up enough tritium to save the earth. Finally, fusion reactions give off helium and neutrons, which are both refreshingly boring compared to carbon poisons or nuclear death.
This is exciting, but hasn’t stopped a whole bunch of killjoys from getting on Lockheed Martin’s back. They point out that a lot of the physics involved is still theoretical, and that we don’t actually have materials that could handle the heat generated from being in close proximity to that much angry plasma – and that’s leaving aside handling that dangerous tritium. Lockheed Martin seems to be gambling on developing these materials within the next five to ten years. But even with those caveats, this is an exciting development in nuclear fusion, that looks far more feasible than all those sad-sack announcements over the last fifty years, that commercially viable fusion is inevitable in – huh? They all said 10 years, too? Oh.