Lockheed Martin claims breakthrough in compact fusion reactors: good news for space exploration?
Lockheed Martin announced this week that it plans to have a working compact nuclear fusion reactor (CFR) in ten years. If successful, the smaller, more portable size of the reactors could make them ideal sources of power for various transportation vehicles on Earth such as planes and ships. They could even one day more efficiently power spacecraft for deep-space missions, including a crewed mission to the planet Mars.
The reactors are a project of the company’s secretive “Skunk Works” program. Company representatives provided some specifics as to the efficiency level of this new power source.
“Our compact fusion concept combines several alternative magnetic confinement approaches, taking the best parts of each, and offers a 90 percent size reduction over previous concepts,” said Tom McGuire, compact fusion lead for the Skunk Works’ Revolutionary Technology Programs. “The smaller size will allow us to design, build and test the CFR in less than a year.”
It is also claimed that such reactors could power homes and cities within 20 years.
Lockhheed Martin currently has several patents pending for the new technology; a prototype is expected to ready in five years, but it will take several more years to make the technology commercially viable. The updated reactors are described as being small enough to fit on the back of a truck. Fusion reactors are also a much-preferred power source over their fission counterparts.
The reason behind this is the lack of radioactive waste from a fusion process as opposed to one derived from fission.
According to Roger Dargaville, a research fellow and leader of the MEI Energy Futures Group at the University of Melbourne, Australia, “The potential for the use of fusion reactors over fission is exciting news as the dangerous by-products of fission reactors are a major disadvantage of the technology.” He also notes however that “The lack of political will to address the general resistance to nuclear power within the population means the option for using nuclear will come too late.”
As might be expected, there has been a lot of skepticism regarding the announcement; as Joel Gilmore of Australia-based ROAM Consulting stated, “Fusion requires incredibly high temperatures and pressures, which is challenging, and a lot of people have been working on fusion for a long time. So I won’t get too excited yet.”
His reaction echoes that of many others as well. Efficient and economically feasible nuclear fusion has seemed like a dream for a long time. If Lockheed Martin succeeds in this project, it would mark a huge technological leap forward.
There could also be big implications for this technology in terms of space exploration. These types of small, but powerful, fusion reactors would be ideal sources of power for deep space missions, such as a human crewed mission to Mars or robotic spacecraft going farther out into the solar system in less time than it takes now.
A space-propulsion company named MSNW and scientists at the University of Washington (UW) have been working on making this a reality.
“Using existing rocket fuels, it’s nearly impossible for humans to explore much beyond Earth,” said John Slough, a UW research associate professor of aeronautics and astronautics. “We are hoping to give us a much more powerful source of energy in space that could eventually lead to making interplanetary travel commonplace.”
With current technology, a roundtrip mission to Mars would take about 500 days. With fusion-powered rockets, it has been estimated that such a journey could be done in only 30-90 days. A powerful magnetic field in the reactor could cause large metal rings (made of lithium) to collapse around the plasma. The plasma would be squeezed into a fusion state for a few microseconds. These fusion reactions would then heat up and ionize the shell of metal formed by the crushed rings, which would then get ejected out of the rocket. The process would be repeated about once per minute, propelling the rocket forward.
The same technology could, of course, also be used for robotic spacecraft, sending them through the solar system faster than can now be achieved with liquid fuel or ion-engine rockets.
Paul Scott Anderson has had a passion for space exploration that began when he was a child when he watched Carl Sagan’s “Cosmos.” While in school he was known for his passion for space exploration and astronomy. Then, in 2005 he began to detail his passion for the skies in his own online journal. While interested in all aspects of space exploration, his primary passion is planetary science. In 2011, he started writing on a freelance basis, and currently writes for Examiner.com. He has also done supplementary writing for the well-known iOS app Exoplanet.