Lockheed Martin made an astonishing claim on October 15, that they had developed an approach that would make energy from fusion a reality in the next decade or so.
Fusion has long been the Holy Grail of nuclear physics.
The International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), has been a multinational project for developing a fusion reactor. The project has been funded by seven countries, including the United Sates.
Suddenly, in addition to ITER, there are two new approaches for developing a fusion reactor.
There is the Lockheed announcement, and a project under development by the University of Washington that was announced last spring.
Simply stated, fusion is the process of two atoms fusing together when subjected to tremendous heat and pressure, and where the combination creates new atoms and releases huge amounts of energy.
Fusion is the opposite of fission. Fission is where an atom is split and releases large quantities of energy. All current nuclear reactors use fission, the splitting of atoms, to generate the heat to produce steam that drives turbine generators that produce electricity.
The basic problem in developing a fusion reactor is that it has required more energy to control the plasma in which the reaction takes place, than the amount of energy produced by the reaction.
The proposals from Lockheed and UW will supposedly create ten times more energy than the energy required to run the process.
The Lockheed lab unit, called the compact fusion reactor (CFR), is only a few square feet in size. It supposedly can be increased in size so that a 100 MW reactor would measure around 23 by 43 feet, and could be mounted on a trailer.
All of this is highly theoretical, and Lockheed admits it will take five years in which to develop a prototype. They also say it will take an additional ten years to produce a working installation.
Needless to say, many scientists are very skeptical of the Lockheed announcement.
The University of Washington design uses a concept called a “spheromak” that drives the electrical currents into the plasma to create the magnetic fields to contain the plasma.
The University of Washington experimental unit is about one-tenth the size of an operational unit, so an operational unit would fit into a space of less than 60 by 60 feet.
More importantly, according to researchers at the University, a large working unit would cost slightly less than a coal-fired power plant of equal output, or about $2,700 per KW.
Then there is ITER, a project that has benefitted from 20 years of previous experimentation with Tokamak coils.
The Tokamak design utilizes a vacuum vessel, shaped like a huge donut, with a massive magnetic field constraining the plasma.
The entire Tokamak unit, consisting of electromagnets, vacuum vessel, blanket modules, solenoid (transformer) and correction coils, is contained in a cryogenic vessel, depicted above, which is essentially a thermal insulating blanket, 91 feet tall, 89 feet in diameter, and weighing 23,000 tons.
Thus far, it has cost $50 billion. The ITER construction and development program is to take until around 2030, and is intended to merely prepare for the building of a demonstration power plant.
The Lockheed and University of Washington programs have the potential to develop fusion power generation more rapidly than the ITER project, and at far less cost.
Fusion power generation holds out the prospect of unlimited power using easily obtained materials, deuterium, i.e., heavy water, and tritium, a radioactive isotope of hydrogen. The deuterium is separated from water, while the tritium can be produced in existing nuclear reactors using lithium rods in place of control rods. It may also be possible to produce tritium from within the fusion reactor using lithium.
Only small quantities of deuterium and tritium are required, with Lockheed estimating that a mere 25 pounds of deuterium and tritium, combined, will be needed to operate a 1,000 MW power plant for a year.
While the potential of fusion is staggering, the facts are not very encouraging.
When compared with the work being done by Lockheed and the University of Washington, the ITER project would seem to be an expensive boondoggle, where success could take many decades.
The Lockheed announcement consisted of more hype than substance, and Lockheed will need to answer many questions before its proposal can be taken seriously.
The University of Washington’s proposal, however, has been couched in conservative terms, and the announcement last spring was not given much attention. If a prototype could be developed in five years, as the Lockheed team is claiming for its approach, it would seem very worthwhile to supply the needed funding.
DOE has provided grants for many bad ideas, but this one has the potential to change the world.
The consequences of fusion power will be examined in the next article.
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