The Holy Grail of the nuclear industry

I note with interest that Lockheed Martin’s experiments with nuclear fusion technology are moving right along.

Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works is building a new, more capable test reactor as it continues to move ahead with its ambitious Compact Fusion Reactor program, or CFR. Despite slower than expected progress, the company remains confident the project can produce practical results, which would completely transform how power gets generated for both military and civilian purposes.

. . .

“The work we have done today verifies our models and shows that the physics we are talking about – the basis of what we are trying to do – is sound,” Jeff Babione, Skunk Works Vice President and General Manager, told Aviation Week. “This year we are constructing another reactor – T5 – which will be a significantly larger and more powerful reactor than our T4.”

The T5’s main job will be to further test whether Skunk Work’s basic reactor design can handle the heat and pressure from the highly energized plasma inside, which is central to how the system works. In a nuclear fusion reaction, a gaseous fuel gets heated up to a point where the pressure is so intense that its very atomic structure gets disrupted and certain particles fuse together into a heavier nucleus. This process also involves the release of a massive amount of energy, which, in principle, could be used to run a traditional thermal power generator.

“We are currently scheduled to have that [the T5] go online towards the end of this year,” Babione said. “So that will be another significant leap in capability and towards demonstrating that the physics underlining our concept works.”

. . .

Containing the reaction, the same one that occurs in our sun and other stars, and doing so for a protracted period of time, remains the biggest hurdle. Nuclear fusion creates temperatures of hundreds of millions of degrees Fahrenheit, which, in turn, also generate extremely high pressures inside the reactor vessel. The energy from fusion reactions can be so powerful that countries have already weaponized it in the form of hydrogen bombs.

. . .

Lockheed Martin says that the CFR design could eventually be small enough to fit inside a shipping container, but still be able to power a Nimitz class aircraft carrier or up to 80,000 homes. The patent documents suggest it might eventually be compact enough to even power a large aircraft.

There’s more at the link.

Here’s a video report from Lockheed Martin about their project, and its implications for the future.

The nation that first achieves commercially viable nuclear fusion will – at least for a time – have a monumental advantage over all others.  It’ll have, essentially, the power of the sun available to generate unlimited electricity, without any risk of radioactive pollution from the wastes generated by traditional nuclear fission reactors.  Other countries – particularly the ITER international consortium, plus China – are far advanced with their own research in the field, and are generally believed to be ahead of US scientists (although it’s impossible to say for sure whether that’s true or not, due to the secrecy surrounding many developments in the field).

Good luck to Lockheed Martin with their research.

Peter

11 comments

  1. Well, we’d do real well with fission, if we were allowed to reprocess ‘spent’ fuel into new fuel. And if we’d be allowed to explore Thorium based reactors and other advanced reactor designs.

    Portable reactors like what GE was able to make back in the 60’s, about the size of a 455 Olds engine.

    Fun stuff like that.

    But our Nuclear Engineer President (2nd or 3rd worst of the post WWII era) stopped all good nuclear research.

    Fusion is great, but unless you’re using HE3 you will still get highly radioactive byproducts from it. Coincidentally, the Moon has a reasonable amount of HE3 on/in it, and so do Jupiter and Saturn.

    Fusion by itself isn’t the wonderproduct everyone thinks it is. We’d do far better concentrating on cleaner and better fission reactors. Yes, the energy output isn’t as great, but you don’t eat as much energy in the production of the energy.

    Still, go Lockmart!

    (and… looks like NASA is getting serious about NERVA and other nuclear torch and teakettle style thruster systems. Now if they’d just get serious about Orion (bomb pumped power systems) the solar system would be ours!

  2. Love to see it happen, but I have been watching the fusion research for over 30 years and they are still ’10 years away’ from a viable reactor…just like 30 years ago. So please forgive me if I see ads like this as simply a bleg for more government funding.

  3. The gentleman said he will not be able to retire at his current (research) job, because the fusion dream will have arrived to soon (in so many words). I seriously doubt it.

    That said, I am all for fusion research. I believe we will get there. Containment within a long lasting vessel is not the only issue. Residual radioactivity is still an issue (but less so than fission).

    That said, fission is great and can supply so much energy to the inhabitants of Earth for almost an uncountable number of years in the future. We should be using it and s-can the ideas of solar and wind power. Let’s pull our heads out of the sand or from wherever else.

  4. MIT stuck my dad in their ALCATOR fusion reactor program after he retired as electrician/engineer on their Alvin submarine. I used to go in with him to work when I was like 5. There were always kids in the magnet and nuke lab, and teenagers who had made atomic bombs or reactors at home, and got to either accept a scholarship to MIT or be prosecuted.
    Thing is, most of the US is STILL focusing on tokamak reactors, and as far as I can tell, the only advances in the past 30 years have been measured in microseconds of sustainment of the fusion field. We’ve been 5-10 years from a fusion reactor for almost 50 yesrs.

  5. If LM can succeed with this it would be great. In the mean time, Bean’s ideas would help.

    My hope for it would be the application of fusion power to spaceflight. With a container sized system, it could be put in orbit to power space stations. It could also be used as the main power source for interplanetary flight; combined with some current pending designs for fusion based propulsion systems, Mars would only be about 30 days away on a powered (not coasting) flight.

    As to the always 10 years away, there may be a political cause. I have a friend who was a doctoral candidate at Princeton working on nuclear fusion around 20 or 30 years ago. The Federal Government was providing a good deal of the funding. He told me they were starting to make substantial headway into problems with sustainable fusion when all of a sudden the money was pulled. He said his grapevine information was that big fossil fuel was the prime influencer. He is not a conspiracy theory kind of guy; I shared a cubicle with him for a few years and he shut down some things that I threw at him that were conspiracy theories in the world of technology and science.

  6. There are 10-12 private efforts to develop fusion power right now, including this LockMart one. The scope on all of these is found on the polywell IEC forum. There are a significant number of efforts to develop more advanced fission power as well, mostly variants of MSR (molton salt reactors) some of which would be powered with Thorium rather than Uranium/Plutonium.

  7. I do hold out hope that the EMC2 people can get the p + Boron-11 reaction to work. That one’s aneutronic, which would help a lot with reducing radioactive waste as compared to the standard fusion reactions.

  8. Fission reactors are dirt simple compared to fusion reactors. In fact, fission reactors are dirt simple compared to *internal combustion engines*. Thomas Edison could have made a fission reactor if he knew enough about neutronics. Simply pile enough of the right materials close enough together, and the neutron population takes off. 30,000,000 MJ/kg (or 100x more with fast neutron reactors) compared with 50 MJ/kg for gasoline.

    Fusion is a tough nut to crack. All known means of containing the plasma are “leaky” to some extent – due to inevitable collisional diffusion, but also due to various kinds of micro-turbulence. The leak rate out of a trap puts a limit on the viable size of the reactor: Area proportional leak rate, volumetric fusion power production rate –> minimum size. Unfortunately, the minimum viable size is big – too big for anyone to have wanted to pay for so far. On the other hand, you can make a fission reactor the size of a softball with enriched fuel. There is also the leakage of energy due to radiation – that is what kills the p+B11 reaction – we’d have to make an “optically thick” reactor that holds on to radiated energy somehow.

    No one that I’m aware of is seriously trying for anything other than the D+T reaction. The D+He3 reaction would be good if we had He3 from anywhere, but we don’t. The D+T reaction idea is that we’d get the deuterium from sea-water and try to breed the tritium with Li-6 blankets around the reactor which catch the neutrons. We currently make tritium by putting Li-6 rods into nuclear fission reactors to catch neutrons.

    D+D has a cross section ~OOM smaller than D-T. The H+H reaction that powers the sun has a cross section off the bottom of the charts – can’t use that one in any reasonably sized reactor!

    It’s important research, because mankind needs energy. Anything that could potentially yield more of it is worthwhile research. In my personal opinion, I wish civilization wouldn’t hold it’s breath for fusion, though – We need to be building fission plants like crazy.

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