It’s Not the Size of the Reactor But the Strength of the Reaction: Can Lockheed Martin’s Small-Scale Fusion Reactor Concept Change the Planet’s Energy Future?

Although the United States is still a global energy leader with abundant natural gas, coal, and reserves of oil, these sources’ non-renewable nature requires steadfast development of sources of renewable energy that can actually satisfy America’s—and the planet’s—rising energy demand. Current non-renewable technologies, particularly solar, hydropower, and wind, are unsatisfactory for meeting energy demand because each offers at least one critical shortcoming for mass production of electricity.[1] Indeed, even current nuclear technology requires finite resources—plutonium or uranium metal—as a source of fuel. For this reason, the scientific community must immediately engage in the development of nuclear fusion technology for energy-generation purposes because it could be a source of almost infinite energy that simultaneously satisfies the planet’s energy needs.

In mid-October, Lockheed Martin, the U.S. government’s largest defense supplier, announced plans to develop a working prototype of a compact fusion reactor in the next five years.[2] The announcement is essentially an open casting call for industry and scientific partners to work with Lockheed’s Skunk Works group to develop this technology.[3] Lockheed’s announcement sent shockwaves throughout the scientific and energy community, particularly because fusion technology has baffled nuclear scientists for over 50 years and because of the technology’s potential to satisfy most—if not all—of the planet’s energy needs.[4]

Currently, all nuclear reactors that are used for electricity-generation purposes apply fission technology.[5] Simply put, nuclear fission involves splitting atoms, typically atoms from uranium or plutonium metal, which in turn produces heat.[6] The heat spins turbines, which creates electricity.[7] Nuclear fusion, on the other hand, involves combining atoms by heating up a gas comprised of two hydrogen isotopes, deuterium and tritium, which separates the gas into an ion-and-electron plasma.[8]Scientists control this plasma with magnetic fields until the ions and electrons are heated to high enough temperatures.[9] At such high temperatures, the ions and electrons overcome their reciprocal desire to repel from each other and collide with each other, fusing together to produce helium.[10] This reaction into helium releases a large amount of energy; in fact, according to Lockheed, it creates 1 million times more energy than nuclear fission.[11] The problem, however, has been containing this release, as well as channeling it into a usable power source, such as electricity.[12]

Enter Lockheed’s Skunk Works. The research team, led by Dr. Thomas McGuire, claims that it developed a revolutionary high-beta fusion reactor concept, called the compact fusion reactor (CFR), that is much smaller, efficient, and cheaper to operate than a tokomak-based fusion reactor system.[13] A tokamak system uses one set of magnets to mold the plasma into a ring and then applies another magnetic current inside the ring of plasma to maintain the reaction.[14] Aside from being a large piece of machinery, the “beta limit” of a tokamak system is low, meaning that it can only hold so much plasma due to the large amounts of pressure the magnets creates.[15] This low beta limit is what makes a tokamak reactor inefficient.[16]Lockheed’s CFR concept, however, intends to avoid this inefficiency through a different “high beta” method of plasma confinement.[17]Rather than molding the plasma in rings and maintaining the shape throughout the reaction, the CFR applies a magnetic field around the outer border of the reaction chamber that suspends the plasma throughout, thus applying less magnetic pressure than a tokamak.[18] A “blanket” on the outside of the reaction chamber then absorbs the heat, transferring the heat to turbines to produce electricity.[19]

The difference in beta limits proves crucial for why Lockheed believes its concept is revolutionary. Because Lockheed’s concept can contain more plasma than a tokamak, it can create more power at ten times smaller the size than a tokamak—at least theoretically.[20]Because of the potential for a smaller size reactor, the CFR concept will be cheaper to make, as well as potentially portable.[21]Moreover, the smaller size allows Lockheed, and its potential partners, to constantly develop and test updated versions of the CFR, which is why Lockheed could set a five-year goal to obtain a working prototype.[22]

If Lockheed’s CFR concept comes to fruition, it could indeed be a game-changer, even a game-ender, for meeting the world’s energy demand in a safe, efficient, and clean manner. First, hydrogen, the element whose isotopes are required as fuel for the fusion reaction, is plentiful and renewable because it is found in water. Political and economic tensions over energy security, expected to become worse as fossil fuels are increasingly depleted, would essentially end.[23] Second, fusion neither produces dangerous radioactive waste like fission nor harms the environment like greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels. Fusion’s byproduct, helium, is neither dangerous, unstable, or a greenhouse gas.[24]However, used fuel rods from fission reactors create health hazards and political fights regarding how and where to store them. Third, operating a fusion reactor is inherently safe because of the lack of radioactive materials, as well as the ability to terminate the reaction by merely removing the heating source.[25] There are no fears of a meltdown or explosion with fusion reactors.[26] Finally, the small size of the CFR concept offers the potential of small enough reactors to operate airplanes and motorized vehicles.[27]

Although Lockheed’s “breakthrough” sounds promising, many in the scientific community have raised questions. Lockheed has yet to publish any peer-reviewed scientific paper that defends the science behind its CFR concept, rather releasing information via a press release, its website, and media comments by Dr. McGuire.[28] Moreover, for a device as small as Lockheed’s CFR concept, there may not be materials that can withstand the amount of heat required to cause a fusion reaction.[29] Also, the fusion process generates many neutrons, which creates dangerous radiation, which would actually require the CFR concept to be larger—and thus heavier—to accommodate a radiation shield.[30] This would prohibit the CFR from mobile use. Finally, Lockheed’s concept is indeed a concept. It must withstand practical development, testing, and produce the desired results before we can herald the CFR a “breakthrough.”

Notwithstanding the enthusiasm and criticism for Lockheed’s announcement, it is nevertheless exciting to see a non-traditional player in the energy development field. Lockheed Martin has the political, intellectual, and financial power to aid in helping the United States—indeed the world—achieve independence from fossil fuels. If Lockheed’s concept is sound and Skunk Works is able to pair with the proper government, industry, and scientific leaders, this concept can certainly change the world. Indeed, it takes political, intellectual, and financial power to develop the necessary technologies to usher the world into the new age of energy, whether it be solar, hydro, geothermal, wind, or even fusion.

Preferred Citation: William Wright,  It’s Not the Size of the Reactor But the Strength of the Reaction: Can Lockheed Martin’s Small-Scale Fusion Reactor Concept Change the Planet’s Energy Future?LSU J. Energy L. & Res. Currents (November 4, 2014), http://sites.law.lsu.edu/jelrblog/?p=500.

[1] Probably most crucial, each source offers transmission issues. Also, solar and wind are intermittent sources because utility companies are unable to generate solar power on a cloudy day or wind power when the wind does not blow. Deeper exploration of the shortcomings of these sources is beyond the scope of this blog post.

[2] Press Release, Lockheed Martin Pursuing Compact Nuclear Fusion Reactor Concept(October 15, 2014), available athttp://www.lockheedmartin.com/us/news/press-releases/2014/october/141015ae_lockheed-martin-pursuing-compact-nuclear-fusion.html.

[3] Peter Kelly-Detweiler, Excited About Lockheed Martin’s Announcement? Let’s Wait Until The Dust Settles, Forbes (October 17, 2014, 11:43 a.m.), http://www.forbes.com/sites/peterdetwiler/2014/10/17/excited-about-lockheed-martins-fusion-announcement-lets-wait-until-the-dust-settles [herinafter, “Dust Settles”]. Skunk Works is Lockheed’s secretive research and development division. Its developments have included military aircraft such as the U-2 spy plane, SR-71 Blackbird, F-117 Nighthawk, and the F-22 Raptor. Skunk Works, LockheedMartin.com, http://www.lockheedmartin.com/us/aeronautics/skunkworks.html (last visited November 4, 2014).

[4] See William Pentland, Forbes, Lockheed Martin Claims Fusion Breakthrough That Could Change World Forever (October 16, 2014, 1:48 p.m.), http://www.forbes.com/sites/williampentland/2014/10/15/lockheed-martin-claims-fusion-breakthrough-that-could-change-world-forever [hereinafter, “Breakthrough”] (“Containing and controlling the staggering levels of heat and pressure involved has hampered countless previous efforts to use fusion for generating electricity.”).

[5] Nuclear Energy Inst., How Nuclear Reactors Work, NEI.org, http://www.nei.org/Knowledge-Center/How-Nuclear-Reactors-Work (last visited November 4, 2014).

[6] Compact Fusion, LockheedMartin.com, http://www.lockheedmartin.com/us/products/compact-fusion.html (last visited October 23, 2014) [hereinafter, “Compact Fusion”].

[7] Id.

[8] Guy Norris, Skunk Works Reveals Compact Fusion Reactor Details, Aviation Week (October 15, 2014, 4:00 p.m.), http://aviationweek.com/print/technology/skunk-works-reveals-compact-fusion-reactor-details [hereinafter, “Compact Fusion Reactor Details”].

[9] Id. These are astronomically high temperatures.

[10] Id. See also Compact Fusion, supra note 6.

[11] Compact Fusion, supra note 6.

[12] See Breakthrough, supra note 4.

[13] Compact Fusion Reactor Details, supranote 8.

[14] Id.

[15] Id. The “beta limit” is the ratio of plasma pressure to magnetic pressure inside a fusion reactor. Id. A reactor with a higher beta limit can hold more plasma, which creates more energy because more fusion occurs inside the reaction chamber. Id.

[16] Id.

[17] Id.

[18] Id.

[19] Id. This reaction will only require heat exchangers, rather than combustion chambers, to transfer the generated heat to the turbines. Breakthrough, supra note 4.

[20] Compact Fusion Reactor Details, supranote 8.

[21] Id. See also Compact Fusion, supra note 6. Economic feasibility is certainly a crucial first step into making a concept a reality, particularly a concept that involves discovering new sources of energy. Economic viability is the reason why many large corporations—such as Lockheed Martin—shy away from developing new energy technologies.

[22] Compact Fusion, supra note 6.

[23] Or, water becomes the next source of geopolitical conflict, but this discussion is beyond the scope of this blog post.

[24] Speaking of helium, if future technology can figure out a way to harness the helium gas byproduct from fusion (assuming that Lockheed’s concept comes to fruition), it can go a long way to combating the global shortage of helium. Helium is crucial for cooling magnets in MRI machines, cryogenics, welding, pressurizing rocket fuel, and detecting leaks. See, e.g., Bobby Magill, Why Is There a Helium Shortage?, Popular Mechanics (June 25, 2012, 12:06 p.m.), http://www.popularmechanics.com/science/health/med-tech/why-is-there-a-helium-shortage-10031229.

[25] But see, infra, note 30 (where one scientist argues that the fusion process generates neutrons, which in turn creates “pretty serious” radiation).

[26] Matthew Hole, Don’t get too excited, no one has cracked nuclear fusion yet, THE CONVERSATION (October 17, 2014 6:20 a.m.), http://theconversation.com/dont-get-too-excitd-no-one-has-cracked-nuclear-fusion-yet-33132.

[27] But see, infra note 30 (where one scientist argues that the CFR concept would have to be bigger than Lockheed claims to achieve the desired results).

[28] Jessica Orwig, Scientists Are Bashing Lockheed Martin’s Nuclear Fusion ‘Breakthrough,’ Business Insider (October 15, 2014, 7:25 p.m.), http://www.businessinsider.com/scientists-bash-lockheed-on-nuclear-fusion-2014-10 [herinafter, “Bashing Lockheed”]. Indeed Skunk Works operates in what many call a “black box,” so all the information that public and scientific community knows is what Lockheed volunteers. Dust Settles, supra note 3.

[29] Bashing Lockheed, supra note 28.

[30] Dust Settles, supra note 3.

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