Lockheed Martin says it has made a technological breakthrough in developing a power source based on nuclear fusion, and the first reactors, small enough to fit on the back of a truck, could be ready for use in a decade.
Tom McGuire, who heads the project, said he and a small team had been working on fusion energy at Lockheed’s secretive Skunk Works for about four years, but were now going public to find potential partners in industry and government for their work.
Initial work demonstrated the feasibility of building a 100-megawatt reactor — which could power 80,000 homes — measuring 7ft by 10ft, which could fit on the back of a large truck, and is about 10 times smaller than current reactors, McGuire told reporters.
In a statement, the company, the Pentagon’s largest supplier, said it would build and test a compact fusion reactor in less than a year, and build a prototype in five years.
In recent years, Lockheed has become increasingly involved in a variety of alternate energy projects, including several ocean energy projects, as it looks to offset a decline in US and European military spending.
Lockheed’s work on fusion energy could help in developing new power sources amid increasing global conflicts over energy, and as projections show there will be a 40% to 50% increase in energy use over the next generation, said McGuire.
If it proves feasible, Lockheed’s work would mark a breakthrough in a field that scientists have long eyed as promising, but which has not yet yielded viable power systems. The effort seeks to harness the energy released during nuclear fusion, when atoms combine into more stable forms. “We can make a big difference on the energy front,” said McGuire, noting Lockheed’s 60 years of research on nuclear fusion as a potential energy source that is safer and more efficient than current reactors based on nuclear fission.
Lockheed sees the project as part of a comprehensive approach to solving global energy and climate change problems.
Compact nuclear fusion would produce far less waste than coal-powered plants since it would use deuterium-tritium fuel, which can generate nearly 10m times more energy than the same amount of fossil fuels, the company said.
Ultra-dense deuterium, an isotope of hydrogen, is found in the earth’s oceans, and tritium is made from natural lithium deposits.
It said future reactors could use a different fuel and eliminate radioactive waste completely.
Lockheed said it had shown it could complete a design, build and test it in as little as a year, which should produce an operational reactor in 10 years, said McGuire.
A small reactor could power a US navy warship, and eliminate the need for other fuel sources that pose logistical challenges.