You may want to take a moment and note today’s date. This just might be the day you’ll recount to your grandchildren when they complain about the energy bill in their first studio space-apartment. That still leaks somehow.
Anyways, yes, what I just said is an actual possibility given what’s being put on the table: a virtually unlimited, zero-emission energy source. Making it even more of an actual possibility is from whom that promise is coming from: Lockheed Martin’s Advanced Development Programs, better known as the Skunk Works. Past projects include: the P-80 Shooting Star , the first fighter jet the USAF deployed over the skies of Korea; the U-2 spyplane, famous from its eponymous “incident”; and of course, the rockstar: the SR-71 Blackbird. Not a pedigree to scoff at to say the least. With the Skunk Works’ history of doing what can’t be done, and quickly to boot, this makes for extremely exciting news.
Maybe the first thing that came to mind when I said, “virtually unlimited, zero-emission energy source” was wind power, maybe tidal, or perhaps solar, but the answer is actually nuclear. Nuclear fusion, that is. Unlike nuclear fission, where one atom splits into two and releases energy as a result, nuclear fusion, when two atoms fuse into one, is not commercially employed in any nuclear power plants. That’s because the energy from fission reactions is relatively simple to harvest compared to fusion.
So, in fission reactors (pictured above) the source of heat for steam turbines comes from the fission of radioactive elements such as uranium and plutonium, where the rate of fission can be manipulated through control rods which absorb neutrons that would have split more uranium atoms. Fusion reactors, on the other hand, involve recreating conditions akin to the core of our sun, which is to say, a lot of heat and a lot of pressure. If we were to peer into the sun’s core, we’d see superheated gas is separate into its ions and electrons. Subsequently, when the ions get hot enough, they can overcome their mutual repulsion and collide, fusing together. According to Lockheed’s page, “When this happens, they release a lot of energy – about one million times more powerful than a chemical reaction and 3-4 times more powerful than a fission reaction.” With that amount of energy at humanity’s disposal, the entire technologic and economic landscape changes. Today’s science fiction pipe dreams could become tomorrow’s kickstarter projects.
Now, a team headed by MIT graduate Thomas McGuire, seen above with a compact fusion prototype, is attempting to create a compact, 100-megawatt fusion reactor; enough power for a small city of 50-100k people. McGuire and his team diverge from the fusion community’s first attempt at fusion power, the tokamak design (the same design being used in ITER), instead opting for a high beta concept that “uses a high fraction of the magnetic field pressure, or all of its potential, so we can make our devices 10 times smaller than previous concepts.”
A goal, if achieved, would change the world in as we know it. We’re talking clean, limitless energy with no lingering radioactive waste, no risk of proliferation, all in a transportable form factor. Suddenly, daunting problems like providing clean water and electricity to the whole world becomes a lot more palatable. Looking beyond the scope of our planet, adding fusion energy into the mix with space travel nets shorter travel times, crucially cutting down on radiation exposure during transit. And with space travel, comes colonization, mining operations, and a third-thing-you’ve-seen-in-space-movies-that-you-always-wished-was-real.
The dream of cheap, green, and plentiful fusion energy, if realized, would undoubtedly become the catalyst for the next great human revolution, the true vision of the atomic age our scientists since the 50s could only envision in their dreams.
Check out the source for more technical information on the Skunk Work’s Compact Fusion project.