On Wednesday, Lockheed Martin announced a new technological breakthrough in their efforts to develop a compact and portable power source using nuclear fusion. The aerospace and defense contractor claims the technology will be ready for field use in approximately one decade, according to a report by the Guardian.
A secret team at Lockheed’s Skunk Works advanced development site has been working on the project for the past four years, but the company is going public with their work in hopes of finding commercial and government partners. In a press release, Lockheed Martin noted, “While fusion itself is not new, the Skunk Works has built on more than 60 years of fusion research and investment to develop an approach that offers a significant reduction in size compared to mainstream efforts.”
“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.”
Reuters reports that Lockheed Martin intends to build a functional prototype within five years.
If Lockheed Martin’s efforts prove successful, compact nuclear fusion technology could be revolutionary. The company estimates that nuclear fusion power can generate ten times the energy of coal-powered plants. The Guardian notes the fusion cells would be “small enough to fit on the back of a truck,” and would use ultra-dense deuterium-tritium fuel, which creates significantly less radioactive waste than traditional nuclear fission reactors.
However, some scientists are skeptical of Lockheed Martin’s timetable and claims of ultra-compact size. According to Mother Jones, it takes the same amount of power to generate the controlling magnetic field for the reactor’s safe operation as a nuclear fusion reactor creates—thus why most fusion reactors in the past have been quite large. Additionally, the small form factor would make it very difficult for these reactors to safely handle waste output.
Dr. Swadesh M. Mahajan of the University of Texas told Mother Jones, “Getting net energy from fusion is such a goddamn difficult undertaking… We’re all aware that there’s always a finite chance of some breakthrough which is beyond the powers of imagination.”