A breakthrough in fusion energy

Click to enlargeEric Schulzinger/Lockheed Martin

Lockheed Martin Corp says…it had made a technological breakthrough in developing a power source based on nuclear fusion, and the first reactors, small enough to fit on the back of a truck, could be ready for use in a decade.

Tom McGuire, who heads the project, said he and a small team had been working on fusion energy at Lockheed’s secretive Skunk Works for about four years, but were now going public to find potential partners in industry and government for their work.

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…

Lockheed sees the project as part of a comprehensive approach to solving global energy and climate change problems.

Compact nuclear fusion would produce far less waste than coal-powered plants since it would use deuterium-tritium fuel, which can generate nearly 10 million times more energy than the same amount of fossil fuels, the company said.

Ultra-dense deuterium, an isotope of hydrogen, is found in the earth’s oceans, and tritium is made from natural lithium deposits.

It said future reactors could use a different fuel and eliminate radioactive waste completely.

McGuire said the company had several patents pending for the work and was looking for partners in academia, industry and among government laboratories to advance the work.

Lockheed said it had shown it could complete a design, build and test it in as little as a year, which should produce an operational reactor in 10 years, McGuire said.

Everything material about this is a positive. The only potential negatives are [1] Luddite fears over any power source that carries the word nuclear somewhere in the patent. It’s why for example no commercial food packaging in the United States uses gamma ray sterilization – even though it would dramatically increase safety from pathogens, reduce costs. And [2] the combination of American military vendors and the construction dollars needed to produce plants with appropriate safeguards will increase potential cost several-fold. The greedy bastards hate to leave well enough alone.

Still, the potential for cheap energy is so great it can overcome American greed. It will put creeps like the Koch Bros out of business yet do comparatively little harm to home-based energy sources like solar panels. Reactors like the smallest one proposed would produce sufficient electricity to power 100,000 homes. It needs a grid.

For the technically-interested, here’s a link to process details.

22 thoughts on “A breakthrough in fusion energy

  1. moss says:

    The chuckle is that 99.99% of everyone reading this has no idea what it can mean for the world. From a dramatic drop in cost of living to an equally stunning revision in how energy can be produced without pollution, life on this planet can be improved. I sincerely hope this works up to potential. I can’t see an engineering giant like Lockheed making a public announcement without confidence.

  2. Doug Daniel says:

    If this is factual– and, yeah, it’s unthinkable Lockheed would go public with something that wasn’t pretty solid– then it will revolutionize energy production. I’m just gobsmacked because people have been working on practical energy production via fusion as long as I can remember, and have always come up craps. Amazing.

  3. Press release says:

    “Fusion reactors could become an economically viable means of generating electricity within a few decades, and policy makers should start planning to build them as a replacement for conventional nuclear power stations, according to new research.
    Researchers at Durham University and Culham Centre for Fusion Energy in Oxfordshire, have re-examined the economics of fusion, taking account of recent advances in superconductor technology for the first time. Their analysis of building, running and decommissioning a fusion power station shows the financial feasibility of fusion energy in comparison to traditional fission nuclear power.
    The research, published in the journal Fusion Engineering and Design, builds on earlier findings that a fusion power plant could generate electricity at a similar price to a fission plant and identifies new advantages in using the new superconductor technology.” http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2015-10/du-fr100215.php

  4. Holy Moly! says:

    The Max Planck Institute in Germany reached a true milestone in physics and technical engineering yesterday when an experimental stellarator (nuclear fusion reactor) design called Wendelstein 7-X was successfully booted up to an extent where it created hydrogen plasma. The news is not only a scientific sensation—a welcome one after building the reactor alone took 19 years and cost 1.2 billion euros. But it was the first time researchers were able to simulate the energy-producing reactions of our Sun in a laboratory setting. http://motherboard.vice.com/read/nuclear-fusion-hit-a-massive-milestone-in-germany See also https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wendelstein_7-X#Design_and_main_components

  5. Update says:

    “Government Scientists Have Made a Fusion Energy Breakthrough : A recent experiment at the National Ignition Facility produced 1.3 megajoules of nuclear fusion energy, twice as much as expected. https://www.vice.com/en/article/pkb8zz/government-scientists-have-made-a-fusion-energy-breakthrough
    The new breakthrough occurred on August 8 at the National Ignition Facility (NIF), a part of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) in California, which is tasked with keeping the United States’ nuclear weapons modern and functional without the need to conduct underground tests of these dangerous explosives
    By shooting 192 lasers at a BB-size capsule of fuel, the NIF team was able to generate a fusion reaction that released 1.3 megajoules of energy, about five times the energy that was absorbed by the capsule. The reaction lasted about 100 trillionths of a second, and puts the team at the “threshold” of nuclear ignition: the point at which the total energy output exceeds the input and the ultimate aim of the NIF. https://www.llnl.gov/news/national-ignition-facility-experiment-puts-researchers-threshold-fusion-ignition

  6. Science be damned says:

    MIT Scientists Report ‘Major Advance’ In Fusion Energy : Scientists working with superconducting magnets have made a breakthrough that paves the way for carbon-free power. (9/10/21) https://www.vice.com/en/article/g5gezm/mit-scientists-report-major-advance-in-fusion-energy
    Fusion powers the sun and recreating the process on Earth is a complicated process involving high temperature magnets generating massive magnetic fields. The MIT scientists set a goal three years ago of creating a magnet that could generate 20 teslas. They achieved it on schedule, even during the pandemic.
    The next step is to design a fusion device called SPARC that can generate more plasma energy than it consumes. “I now am genuinely optimistic that SPARC can achieve net positive energy, based on the demonstrated performance of the magnets,’ Mari Zuber, MIT’s vice president of research, said. “The next step is to scale up, to build an actual power plant. There are still many challenges ahead, not the least of which is developing a design that allows for reliable, sustained operation. And realizing that the goal here is commercialization, another major challenge will be economic. How do you design these power plants so it will be cost effective to build and deploy them?”
    This isn’t the only recent breakthrough for fusion energy. On August 9, government scientists working at the National Ignition Facility in California shot 192 lasers at a BB-size capsule and generated 1.3 megajoules of energy, roughly five times the energy that was absorbed. Researchers working for General Atomics have constructed a six-story magnet with plans to use it to achieve nuclear fusion. Last year, scientists in Italy recreated nuclear fusion from the big bang under a mountain in Italy. (see links)

    • p/s says:

      “…To capture the sun’s power source here on Earth, what’s needed is a way of capturing and containing something that hot — 100,000,000 degrees or more — by suspending it in a way that prevents it from coming into contact with anything solid.
      That’s done through intense magnetic fields, which form a kind of invisible bottle to contain the hot swirling soup of protons and electrons, called a plasma. Because the particles have an electric charge, they are strongly controlled by the magnetic fields, and the most widely used configuration for containing them is a donut-shaped device called a tokamak. Most of these devices have produced their magnetic fields using conventional electromagnets made of copper, but the latest and largest version under construction in France, called ITER, uses what are known as low-temperature superconductors.
      The major innovation in the MIT-CFS fusion design is the use of high-temperature superconductors, which enable a much stronger magnetic field in a smaller space. This design was made possible by a new kind of superconducting material that became commercially available a few years ago.” (MIT press release September 8, 2021) https://news.mit.edu/2021/MIT-CFS-major-advance-toward-fusion-energy-0908

    • Meanwhile says:

      In southern France, 35 nations are collaborating to build the world’s largest tokamak, a magnetic fusion device that has been designed to prove the feasibility of fusion as a large-scale and carbon-free source of energy based on the same principle that powers our Sun and stars. https://www.iter.org/proj/inafewlines
      Researchers at the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) debuted the first part of the magnet on Thursday when they received it from its American manufacturer, according to The Associated Press. When fully assembled, the magnet stands at a staggering 60 feet tall and is 14 feet in diameter; it’s also powerful enough to lift an aircraft carrier.
      The magnet itself is actually known as a “central solenoid.” It’ll be used as a superconductor to attain the incredible amounts of heat and pressure necessary to produce nuclear fusion. The solenoid can generate a magnetic field roughly 280,000 times stronger than Earth’s magnetic field, according to New Scientist.
      “Each completion of a major first-of-a-kind component — such as the central solenoid’s first module — increases our confidence that we can complete the complex engineering of the full machine,” said Laban Coblentz, spokesperson for ITER. (see links) https://futurism.com/the-byte/magnet-aircraft-carrier

  7. Update says:

    Just before the New Year, China set a clean energy record by sustaining a nuclear fusion reaction at 185 million degrees Fahrenheit for more than 17 minutes using its “artificial sun.”
    That’s exciting news for humanity’s abundant clean energy future, but if you spent any time on the internet over the past week, you may be forgiven for believing that China has actually launched an artificial sun. Like, into the sky. https://www.vice.com/en/article/qjbjyb/people-think-china-launched-an-artificial-sun-into-the-sky
    The Experimental Advanced Superconducting Tokamak (EAST), is located in Heifei, China, and is part of the larger International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) project, which is based in France and includes 35 countries’ participation. EAST is best understood as a testing ground for experiments that feed into ITER’s eventual goal of creating a sustained thermonuclear reaction by 2035. So, China’s success with EAST is actually a win for the entire world.
    In reaching record temperatures on EAST, China smashed a record previously set by France in 2003, and its own latest record, in June, running at 216 million degrees Fahrenheit for 101 seconds. Both milestones represent temperatures that are many, many times greater than that of the real sun, which is around 27 million degrees Fahrenheit at its core.
    “This time, steady-state plasma operation was sustained for 1,056 seconds at a temperature close to 70 million degrees Celsius, laying a solid scientific and experimental foundation toward the running of a fusion reactor,” said Gong Xianzu, a researcher at the Institute of Plasma Physics of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (ASIPP) in a Jan. 2 press release. https://english.hf.cas.cn/nr/rn/202201/t20220102_295502.html

  8. Update says:

    Scientists and engineers at the Lawrence Livermoore National Laboratory say they successfully created burning plasma in a laboratory that briefly sustained itself by the heat of its own nuclear fusion reactions – a key milestone on the road to harnessing functional fusion energy.
    The researchers used the world’s most energetic laser at the lab’s National Ignition Facility (NIF) to heat up a BB-sized hydrogen isotope to many times the temperature at the very core of the Sun. This created the pressure necessary to trigger the fusion process in the hydrogen, which then heated the material of its own accord by a significant fraction of a megajoule without the aid of other sources of heat. https://www.techradar.com/news/breakthrough-at-cutting-edge-laser-lab-brings-fusion-energy-closer-than-ever
    This self-sustaining heat generated by the burning plasma actually enabled LLNL engineers to produce a record breaking energy output last August when LLNL’s National Ignition Facility generated 10 quadrillion watts of energy from a fusion experiment.
    That 0.17-megajoule burst isn’t even 10% of what is needed to ignite sustained nuclear fusion, but it’s 10% more energy than LLNL lasers had to begin with.

  9. Update says:

    A giant donut-shaped machine just proved a near-limitless clean power source is possible : On Wednesday, however, scientists working in the United Kingdom announced that they more than doubled the previous record for generating and sustaining nuclear fusion https://www.cnn.com/2022/02/09/uk/nuclear-fusion-climate-energy-scn-intl/index.html
    Nuclear fusion heat record a ‘huge step’ in quest for new energy source
    Oxfordshire scientists’ feat raises hopes of using reactions that power sun for low-carbon energy https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2022/feb/09/nuclear-fusion-heat-record-a-huge-step-in-quest-for-new-energy-source

  10. Whoa! says:

    “DeepMind Has Trained an AI to Control Nuclear Fusion : The Google-backed firm taught a reinforcement learning algorithm to control the fiery plasma inside a tokamak nuclear fusion reactor.” https://www.wired.com/story/deepmind-ai-nuclear-fusion/
    “DeepMind’s streak of applying its world-class AI to hard science problems continues. In collaboration with the Swiss Plasma Center at EPFL—a university in Lausanne, Switzerland—the UK-based AI firm has now trained a deep reinforcement learning algorithm to control the superheated soup of matter inside a nuclear fusion reactor. The breakthrough, published in the journal Nature, could help physicists better understand how fusion works, and potentially speed up the arrival of an unlimited source of clean energy.” https://www.technologyreview.com/2022/02/16/1045470/deepminds-ai-can-control-superheated-plasma-inside-a-fusion-reactor/
    “Magnetic control of tokamak plasmas through deep reinforcement learning” https://www.nature.com/articles/s41586-021-04301-9

  11. Poco a poco says:

    Nuclear fusion experiment reveals unexpected physics inside first ‘Burning Plasma’ ever created https://www.vice.com/en/article/5d34y5/nuclear-fusion-experiment-reveals-unexpected-physics-inside-burning-plasma
    Researchers at the National Ignition Facility (NIF), a device at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL), recently celebrated the milestone of creating what’s known as a “burning plasma,” which is an energized state of matter that is mostly sustained by “alpha particles” created by fusion reactions. The NIF has also reached the threshold of producing “ignition,” meaning fusion reactions that are self-sustaining, which is a major breakthrough, though it will likely still take decades to develop a fusion reactor—assuming it is possible at all.
    Now, a team led by Ed Hartouni, a physicist at LLNL, has revealed that particles inside burning plasmas have unexpectedly high energies that could open new windows into the exotic physics of fusion reactors, which “could be important for achieving robust and reproducible ignition,” according to a study published on Monday in Nature Physics.

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