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Star Power
What We Can Learn From a Modular Fusion Breakthrough

Lockheed Martin made a huge splash in the energy world this week when it announced that it’s looking for partners to help construct small, modular nuclear fusion reactors capable of powering up to 80,000 American homes, and small enough to transport on the back of a semi-trailer, a ship, or possibly one day a plane. Reuters reports:

Initial work demonstrated the feasibility of building a 100-megawatt reactor measuring seven feet by 10 feet, which could fit on the back of a large truck, and is about 10 times smaller than current reactors, McGuire told reporters.

In a statement, the company, the Pentagon’s largest supplier, said it would build and test a compact fusion reactor in less than a year, and build a prototype in five years.

This big reveal comes with all sorts of caveats, the most notable being that the earliest Lockheed expects to produce any sort of operational reactor will be ten years from now. Fusion has a long history of breakthroughs, most recently when a reaction at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory was able to produce a fusion reaction that expended more energy than it required. Maybe it’s not so unexpected that setbacks abound when one tries to channel, quite literally, the power of the sun, but given the complexity of the technology involved, skepticism can be healthy when it comes to fusion.

That said, there are some broader takeaways here. One of the flaws in projecting the growth of green energy and the rise in global temperatures is the reality that technological progress will continue to change the playing field. We don’t know if compact fusion can really come on line in a serious way, but if it does, this is a massive game-changer, and if it doesn’t, you can reasonably expect some other disruptive technology to fundamentally reshape our energy landscape. We’re already seeing that with the shale boom, which few would have predicted less than a decade ago.

The logical policy recommendation here is that government should spend less money subsidizing power sources that aren’t economically sound and impose costs on businesses and consumers. It should rather invest in the kind of basic research that can lead to technology that makes for better living standards and a greener, more sustainable economy.

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  • BobSykes

    Considering the long, sordid record of fraud in fusion power “research,” this press release should be regarded with extreme skepticism if not outright contempt.

    Lockheed Martin has ample resources to construct a small demonstrator on its own. It does not need partners. The fact that it will not pony up the money for what it claims would be a revolutionary power source smells of scam.

    • Curious Mayhem

      Fusion has a long history of hype as a power source. The existing fusion programs are plasma research programs. It’s unlikely they will ever produce working power.

  • Fat_Man

    “Fusion has a long history” of being ten years away from being useful.

    • Bill_Woods

      Not at all. Fusion used to be thirty years away. So this is a big advance.

      • Fat_Man


        Alice carefully released the brush, and did her best to get the hair into order. “Come, you look rather better now!” she said, after altering most of the pins. “But really you should have a lady’s maid!”

        “I’m sure I’ll take you with pleasure!” the [White] Queen said. “Twopence a week, and jam every other day.”

        Alice couldn’t help laughing, as she said, “I don’t want you to hire ME–and I don’t care for jam.”

        “It’s very good jam,” said the Queen.

        “Well, I don’t want any TO-DAY, at any rate.”

        “You couldn’t have it if you DID want it,” the Queen said. “The rule is, jam to-morrow and jam yesterday–but never jam to-day.”

        “It MUST come sometimes to ‘jam to-day,'” Alice objected.

        “No, it can’t,” said the Queen. “It’s jam every OTHER day: to-day isn’t any OTHER day, you know.”

        • Andrew Allison

          I like the way you quote!

      • Andrew Allison

        Nope, a mirage is a mirage regardless of how far away it appears to be. Not that I don’t think we may (not will) figure out how to do it without consuming more energy than is released or blowing things up, but, like peak oil, fusion to date has always been on the horizon.

    • Curious Mayhem

      Basically, it’s been “ten years away” since the late 70s. The paper in question is only a conjectural plan — no experiments, no prototypes. I’ve seen these before.

      • Vadim Pashkov

        No, it was 20 years away in late 70

        • Curious Mayhem

          🙂 OK, it’s been 10 years away since the 80s.

  • Jacksonian_Libertarian

    “The logical policy recommendation here is that government should spend less money subsidizing power sources that aren’t economically sound and impose costs on businesses and consumers.”

    I can agree with that, the Government Monopoly is the worst at picking winners and losers in the market place, and should confine it’s incompetence to only those tasks only a Government can perform (Defense, Justice, Foreign Relations).

    • ljgude

      Can’t help noticing it has been comprehensively demonstrating it incompetence in those areas for well over a decade. And yes, that means I’m including you Bubba. 😉

  • FriendlyGoat

    Ronald Ace may be mistaken about heat trap solar, but I don’t think he has been filing patents in 140 countries to then toss out the routine “ten year tease”. We’ll see.

  • S.C. Schwarz

    Fusion power is still nuclear power and the greens will still oppose it fanatically just as they oppose fission power. Don’t believe me? Google “fusion power greenpeace”

    • TheRadicalModerate

      There’s a difference, though. At its core, existing generations of fission reactors still carry some real danger. While the the risk is small, the consequences of an accident are large. Averaged over their lifetime, existing commercial nukes, since the first ones came on line in the 50’s, render about 500 sq. km of land uninhabitable per year. That’s a very clean energy source, but it’s not risk-free. Don’t get me wrong: It’s such a clean energy source that we should be developing it far more aggressively. But it’s foolish to assert that it’s completely safe.

      At its core, fusion simply doesn’t have that kind of accident profile. In the most horrific fusion accident you can imagine, you could wind up with a hot pulse that destroyed the reactor. But that’s on the scale of a moderate industrial accident. A fusion reactor is never, ever, ever going to take thousands of sq. km. of surrounding land out of service for a hundred years or so. It generates only low-level waste, and pretty small amounts of it at that.

      Yes, enviro-wackos will be scared of it. But facts have a funny way of mattering in these debates, given enough time. Fusion is completely safe; fission isn’t. That’s a big difference.

  • Tom Chambers

    “Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory was able to produce a fusion reaction that expended more energy than it required.”
    Not exactly. As I recall, the reaction produced more energy than the excitation state of the atoms in the shell that was laser-imploded into fusion. But the energy it took to power those lasers and achieve that excitation state was about 100 times greater still. In other words, they need to improve the efficiency of their machine by about a factor of 100. And to me (admittedly a non-expert) it is not obvious that the Lawrence Livermore approach can yield efficiency improvements of such magnitude.
    The Lockheed-Martin approach is probably different, but I’ll believe in a fusion power generator when I see one that actually generates useful power.

    • TheRadicalModerate

      As I recall, it wasn’t even that good. I think what they actually measured was the neutron flux from inside the stagnation shock (think of this as the sub-sphere inside the spherical pellet where the deuterium atoms stop moving inward from the laser pulse and begin to explode outward) and then inferred that, had they been using deuterium and tritium instead of pure deuterium, they would have had more energy out than in, just in that region.

      Laser inertial confinement fusion has two major milestones for “success”. The first is what’s called “ignition”, which means that enough energy is being produced by fusion inside the stagnation shock that the alpha particles are capable of heating the rest of the pellet to fusion temperatures before the whole thing blows apart. (The neutrons and x-rays aren’t much good for heating things on these scales.) The second, as you mentioned, is that the ignited pellet has to produce about 100 times more energy than the laser energy that actually hit the pellet, because the losses in the electrical and optical couplings that drive the laser pulse are horribly inefficient.

      Bottom line: I don’t hold out much hope for NIF, and pure laser inertial confinement in general. You get too many charged particles fleeing the scene of the crime, and taking their heat with them. On the other hand, Sandia has an approach called Magnetized Liner Inertial Fusion (MagLIF) where they:

      a) Put the fuel in a small beryllium “can”, a few mm long by a mm or two wide.
      b) Apply a magnetic field along the axis of the can to prevent the charged particles from leaving radially.
      c) Zap the fuel with a fairly modest laser pulse (modest by the standards of these kinds of experiments, at least) to pre-heat the fuel.
      d) Then crush the can radially (i.e. towards its axis) by firing about 20 million amps of electrical current along the outer skin of the can with the Z-machine, creating a huge magnetic field that drives the can into the fuel and compresses it to fusion temperatures.

      They’ve been getting really nice results. Even better, the results seem to conform to their simulations very well, and the simulations say that if they can get to about 60 million amps of current (which is a major, but planned, upgrade to the Z-machine), they ought to be getting about 1000 times more energy out than they put in.

      Of course, there are still more things that can go wrong than have to go right for this to become a viable energy source. And of course, you’ve still got neutrons flying all over the place, messing up your magnets and laser optics and power couplings. Remember that NIF and MagLIF are both being conducted under the nuclear stockpile stewardship program, which just wants really intense neutron sources. Everybody’s got their eye on a viable power system, but the funding isn’t for that purpose.

      • Tom Chambers

        Thanks for the info, you know much more about this than I do.

  • TheRadicalModerate

    The really exciting thing in the fusion research community is that they are slowly getting over their obsession with tokamaks. ITER–or its pilot power plant follow-on, DEMO–are never going to produce economically viable systems, and everybody’s finally realizing that maybe learning a whole bunch about steady state plasma physics isn’t going to produce the thing that changes the world.

    There are a fair number of not-horribly-funded startups and research efforts that are looking at completely different ways of going after the problem. Some have higher chances of success than others, with none of them being anywhere close to being slam-dunks, but if you stack up enough independent kinda-long-shots in parallel, the odds of getting something that actually works start going up.

    The Lockheed-Martin thing is a fairly new entrant to this field and, though they’re not releasing much more than vaporware at this point, the vaporware makes sense as far as it goes. LM lives and dies on its reputation. They can announce early versions of technology that doesn’t pan out, but there’s not much upside to announce something that has no evidence of progress behind it. They’ve at least got a promising line of inquiry.

    I notice that numerous people here are repeating the old “fusion has been 30 years away for the last 50 years and always will be” joke. But I suspect that the real situation is now closer to “fusion won’t work until it suddenly does”. There’s an incremental path to get there (ITER and other tokamaks), but there are a lot of paths where the technology could come together very quickly. Mostly, those technologies just won’t work, but it only takes one to hit the bullseye to change everything.

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