What to make of Lockheed's fusion 'breakthrough'?

Scientists at work in National Ignition Facility's fusion target chamber in San Francisco. The device focuses the beams from 192 lasers onto a target the size of a peppercorn.
Science Photo Library

Lockheed Martin says it could have compact nuclear fusion reactors small enough to fit on the back of a truck in use within 10 years after a technological breakthrough in developing the power source.

But specialists in the field reacted cautiously to the announcement, saying commercially viable fusion reactors are still some way off.

Cosmos earlier this year looked at the state of research into fusion and concluded that the "impossible dream" was showing signs of turning a corner. We've also looked at the history of the field and kept and eye on developments.

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

“Many of the approaches [to nuclear fusion] right now have significant drawbacks,” McGuire, told the Washington Post. Some of those drawbacks include instability associated with the reaction, he said, or scaling problems, which means the reactor needs to be very large in order for fusion to work.

Reacting today to Lockheed's announcement, Professor Roger Dargaville, a research fellow and leader of the MEI Energy Futures Group at the University of Melbourne, said "the potential for the use of fusion reactors over fission is exciting news".

But he doubted Australia would benefit. "It is unlikely the nuclear energy, fission or otherwise, will be cost competitive against wind and solar given the quality of renewable resources available. 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.”

Dr Joel Gilmore, who heads Renewable Energy & Climate Policy at energy modellers ROAM Consulting in Brisbane, pointed out that Lockheed's announcement was "a long way from a working prototype, let alone a commercially viable power generator".

"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."

Nuclear fusion occurs when two extremely hot atoms collide an their nuclei combine to form one. That releases massive amounts of energy, but unlike fission used in today's nuclear reactors, fusion does not release radioactive material

Heavy atoms like uranium release energy when they split. Small atoms like hydrogen release energy when they fuse.

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  2. https://beta.cosmosmagazine.com/physical-sciences/can-fusion-answer-our-energy-needs
  3. https://beta.cosmosmagazine.com/physics/how-far-has-fusion-come
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  5. https://beta.cosmosmagazine.com/physical-sciences/fusion-energy-inches-toward-ignition
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  7. http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/capital-business/wp/2014/10/15/nuclear-fusion-energy-in-a-decade-lockheed-martin-is-betting-on-it/
  8. http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/capital-business/wp/2014/10/15/nuclear-fusion-energy-in-a-decade-lockheed-martin-is-betting-on-it/
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