Lockheed Martin Claims Breakthrough In Fusion Reactor But Scant Details Imply More Sizzle Than Steak

Yesterday, Lockheed Martin made major headlines across the Internet with claims that it was developing a new compact fusion reactor that could be deployed within the next decade. This is a bold claim -- researchers have been able to create fusion in a lab for decades, but the problem isn't creating fusion -- it's creating a sustained fusion reactor that generates more power than it consumes.

"Our compact fusion concept combines several alternative magnetic confinement approaches, taking the best parts of each, and offers a 90 percent size reduction over previous concepts,” said Tom McGuire, compact fusion lead for the Skunk Works’ Revolutionary Technology Programs. “The smaller size will allow us to design, build and test the CFR in less than a year."

This is a huge claim for a field of research that has struggled to find appropriate configurations and scales for fusion power for nearly seventy years. There have been multiple major reactor designs proposed and constructed on a small scale and dozens of cumulative refinements to these. The field has struggled with hoaxsters for decades -- so-called "Cold fusion" continues to attract a number of these -- but real research into the fundamental problem of creating a controlled fusion reaction that generates more power than it consumes has continued.

A tokemak reactor

The benefits could be enormous. Unlike so-called "dirty" fission, fusion reactors would produce essentially zero toxic byproducts -- no wastewater or contaminated radoactive materials that had to be sealed away for centuries or millennia. There's no risk of meltdown -- if the power to the reactor shuts off, the fusion generation just stops. In short, fusion power is very nearly a Holy Grail -- so when LM talks about building a prototype in five years and a market model in 10, it gets a lot of attention.

According to Lockheed Martin's Thomas Mcguire and head of the Skunkworks' project, LM's design is different from the kind of Tokemak generators that have been built to date (one of these is pictured above). Instead of containing plasma in a ring structure, Lockheed Martin's Compact Fusion Reactor will contain it within the entire reaction chamber and generate a restraining field around that. “So for us, instead of a bike tire expanding into air, we have something more like a tube that expands into an ever-stronger wall,” McGuire says. The system is therefore regulated by a self-tuning feedback mechanism, whereby the farther out the plasma goes, the stronger the magnetic field pushes back to contain it." In theory, this design allows for vastly more efficient power generation and a much smaller system.

Unfortunately, this may turn out to be more like Elon Musk's Hyperloop proposal than any kind of actual product. The next paragraph of the PR states that the company will be "searching for partners to help further the technology." In PRspeak, that tends to mean "We'll be looking for someone else to fix the problems and pay for production."

Now that's nothing unusual in technology, but it's something of particular note in this case. Fusion power -- true, workable, cost-effective fusion power -- would be such an amazing breakthrough, any company that owned the patents or process could become the richest company on Earth. Toss in "affordable," and that's virtually a guarantee; fusion power would reshape the planet, drastically reducing our reliance on fossil fuels and causing a ridiculous glut in DeLorean themed "Mr. Fusion" jokes.

What Lockheed Martin is claiming, therefore, has to be taken with a grain of salt. It's not the first, tenth, or even fiftieth time that journalists have gotten inflamed over some promising fusion power results that later turned out to be false, mistaken, or the result of bad experimentation. Fusion power is practically the original  5-10 years away technology and what Lockheed Martin has today is a really promising theoretical model -- not a full-fledged prototype. The company will spend the next five years figuring out if the system can perform in the real world, and it's precisely these challenges that have tripped up all previous fusion reactor designs from the 1940s forward to the present day.     

If it's real, if LM's work holds up, than this really could be the turning point -- but based on the historical record and the paucity of evidence that's been presented to back Lockheed Martin's claims (keep in mind, this is a press release, not a scientific journal) I wouldn't bet on it.