Lockheed Martin, the world’s biggest defense contractor, is aiming to use nuclear fusion to create cheap electrical power that uses water for fuel, produces byproducts that are totally safe and releases no air pollution.
With the United States spending less on defense, Lockheed Martin is showing more interest in the energy business than ever.
“Energy is certainly an area of growth for us,” CEO Marillyn Hewson told reporters at the corporation’s media day outside Washington last month. “In a relative sense, it’s not a large business for us, but it’s a growing business for us. So, we’ll continue to invest in that area.”
The team of engineers and scientists at Lockheed Martin’s Advanced Development Programs, also called Skunk Works, are working on the company’s compact fusion project.
When Lockheed Martin announced the project in October of last year, the company said it planned on developing a prototype of a compact fusion reactor within five years and deploying it within 10. A small team had been secretly working on fusion energy for about four years before the announcement.
The fusion reactor would use a magnetic bottle capable of withstanding temperatures as high as hundreds of millions of degrees, which are necessary to cause ions to fuse, thereby releasing massive quantities of energy – about one million times more than a chemical reaction and three to four times more than a fission reaction. The bottle can then be used to release that energy in a controlled fashion.
The fusion is powered by a combination of two hydrogen isotopes – deuterium and tritium – both of which occur in nature and can be extracted from water.
“Our studies show that a 100 MW system would only burn less than 20 kg of fuel in an entire year of operation,” a Lockheed Martin spokeswoman told eWeek. “Tritium fuel is continually bred within the reactor wall and fed back into the reactor along with deuterium gas to sustain the reactions.”
The radioactive byproduct created by the fusion reactor would be recycled for use in the reactor itself, eliminating the type of radioactive waste problems that exist with nuclear fission power plants.
“The waste footprint is orders of magnitude less than coal plants which require huge landfills to contain the toxic ash and sludge wastes,” the spokeswoman said in an email to eWeek.
“A typical coal plant generates over 100,000 tons of ash and sludge containing toxic metals and chemicals each year. The first generation of fusion reactors will run on deuterium-tritium fuel, but successive generations would use fuels that could eliminate the radioactivity altogether.”
Creating a viable magnetic bottle is the biggest hurdle to the project. Lockheed Martin is currently in the process of testing bottle prototypes, and has made significant progress, eWeek reported.
The goal is to create a fusion reactor that can generate heat energy to use in existing power plants, where the reactor would replace fossil fuel combustion. Such a reactor would be small enough to fit on a truck, and could provide enough power for a small city of up to 100,000 people, according to Lockheed Martin
Not everyone shares Lockheed Martin’s optimism about the project, however.
Ian H. Hutchinson, professor of nuclear science and engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said the project “has no chance in working,” Lockheed Martin’s research leading up to the project paid little attention to the fundamentals of fusion energy, he added.
Source: Sputnik News