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Lockheed Martin's CFR: A hot fusion breakthrough for power generation

Lockheed Martin claims to have conquered power generation by hot fusion ... but just how clean might it be?

The National Ignition Facility hot fusion project

The National Ignition Facility hot fusion project

Credit: Wikimedia.org

Lockheed Martin announced today that the company has made a breakthrough in nuclear fusion and predicts that they’ll have a 100 megawatt power plant that will fit on the back of a truck within a decade.

The company’s famed Skunk Works research team has apparently been working on what they term a Compact Fusion Reactor (CFR) for the last four years and claims that it will be able to demonstrate a prototype in about one year.

Although Lockheed released some information about the CFR in 2013 the new "T4" experiment is, according to Aviation Weekly:

… focused on a containment vessel roughly the size of a business-jet engine. Connected to sensors, injectors, a turbopump to generate an internal vacuum and a huge array of batteries, the stainless steel container seems an unlikely first step toward solving a conundrum that has defeated generations of nuclear physicists—namely finding an effective way to control the fusion reaction.

This reactor is a “hot fusion” design in which a containment vessel using superconducting magnets traps plasma heated to thousands of degrees through nuclear fusion. It would appear that Lockheed has solved one of the biggest problems in hot fusion systems, namely how to create a dense, stable plasma; a problem that has eluded many other experiments.  

Lockheed Martin Compact Fusion Reactor Lockheed Martin

Lockheed Martin Compact Fusion Reactor

Instead of constraining the plasma within tubular rings, a series of superconducting coils will generate a new magnetic-field geometry in which the plasma is held within the broader confines of the entire reaction chamber. Superconducting magnets within the coils will generate a magnetic field around the outer border of the chamber.

Lockheed believes that the reactor will run for a year on just 55 lbs of deuterium and tritium, both of which, compared to a fission reactor’s fuel, are plentiful, easily produced, and very cheap. Moreover fusion byproducts (which includes the reactor itself) while radioactive, have a much shorter half-life than those of fission byproducts (“seven long-lived fission products ... have half lives of 211,100 years” - Wikipedia) which will make the fusion waste safe after about 100 years. 

I don’t want to be negative but lest you start to think our energy and environmental problems might be over in a few years, hold hard. While CFRs might, as is claimed, be cleaner and safer in operation than fission (they won’t have “melt downs”), consider this: According to the US Energy Administration “There are currently 62 commercially operating nuclear power plants with 100 nuclear reactors in 31 states in the United States.” These reactors produce 19% of the  4,058 billion kilowatthours of electricity generated annually in the US.

To replace the existing nuclear infrastructure would require about 4,630 Lockheed CFRs ( ((4,058 billion kilowatt hours) / (1 year)) / (100 megawatts) ). And that's for just under 20% of our power needs. If 50% of our power needs were supplied by CFRs then we'd need over 11,300 CFRs! Managing the storage and disposal of waste from just over 4,600 let alone 11,300 reactors would (will?) be a regulatory and logistical nightmare.

Perhaps the technology can be scaled up and we’ll see Lockheed-type hot fusion generators that can replace the existing nuclear fission plants on a one for one basis. Even so, there will still be a huge demand for CFRs in places where power is hard or expensive to come by as well as to demand for them to power trains, ships, data centers, you name it. This all ensures that the number of installations will eventually become enormous and that the waste problems will not be trivial. And do I need to mention weaponization?

Even so, the impact of cheap power can’t be underestimated or, for that matter, stopped and it looks like Lockheed may be seriously in the lead.

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