Today Lockheed-Martin announced new Fusion Reactor technology which could shift humanity’s energy supply from the stone-age mentality to the modern energy paradigm. Some of my recent postings have drawn a distinction between the old energy paradigm, that I’ve called the stone age energy mindset (burning things to get light, heat or motion), and the new energy paradigm that’s based on electricity, electromagnetism and similar forces for everything. This distinction is important for electric car owners because we want these cars to make a big environmental difference, but overwhelmingly the electricity we use is generated by burning fossil fuels negating some of the benefit.
Electric cars powered by renewably generated electricity, where no fossil is burned, are highly desired. That’s why electric cars are often pictured with a backdrop of solar panels or wind turbines.
Getting back to Lockheed’s Fusion Reactor announcement – this isn’t about Fusion Reactor research such as is happening at Lawrence Livermore National Labs. Traditional fusion energy research, like at LLNL, involve huge magnetic fields containing ultra hot plasma’s and huge amounts of energy in huge facilities and it’s taking decades to work through all the bugs. That sort of research may eventually produce a large scale fusion reactor that makes a huge beneficial impact on society. What Lockheed announced is at the opposite end of the spectrum.
The press release describes a compact reactor. They believe that Lockheed Skunk Works will be able to build a test reactor within a year, and deploy production reactors within 10 years.
How “compact” is compact? How about a unit producing 100 megawatts that’s roughly the size of a big rig tractor trailer? Specifically – transportable reactors measuring 23 feet by 43 feet. Within the realm of electricity generation plants, that’s extremely tiny. Typical natural gas plants that size consume dozens of acres of land housing the necessary large building.
Aviation Week has an exclusive in-depth presentation of the details. Basically, the Lockheed team went over all published research into fusion reactors, took the best bits of each, combining them in an ingenious way in a novel new reactor design. The key is a different magnetic field geometry for holding the plasma, that’s inherently safe and stable, resulting in a tremendously smaller system design.
Very little material is required to run these reactors – 25 kilograms of “fuel” is enough for a year of operation. The fuel is made of Deuterium and Tritium, both of which are plentiful. Fission reactors are fueled by rare materials (Uranium, Plutonium).
While the reactor parts do become radioactive through normal operation, the half-life is rapid enough that the radiation dies down within 100 years. By comparison Fission reactor equipment stays radioactive for thousands of years or more.
There’s also no chance of a nuclear meltdown, and the threat of proliferation is basically nonexistant.
In short it sounds like the perfect sort of nuclear reactor. No negative side effects, small enough to be sited anywhere, and a huge power-to-size ratio.
This could potentially be a big game changer in the quest to completely replace fossil fuels. However with the mind-set prevalent among the decision makers the cost will have to be lower than the incumbent fossil fuel plants, right?
Over on the ThinkProgress blog they try to position this technology within the quest to avoid climate catastrophe from our addition to spewing carbon into the atmosphere from burning so many fossil fuels.
Staying within 2 degrees C of global temperature rise means peaking greenhouse gas emissions by 2020, and rapidly falling shortly thereafter. The developed countries (the U.S. etc) may have to peak as early as next year, 2015.
This fusion reactor won’t, if it develops as Lockheed-Martin thinks, even be ready for production use until 2025. Meaning that we cannot depend on this particular technology to save us.
The technology currently available – solar power, wind power – work today and it’s just a business exercise to deploy the systems. There are no technological hurdles to overcome, just the willpower to build out solar and wind power systems at the scale necessary to move the needle on greenhouse gas emissions.
Further, there’s a risk this technology could be entrapped by Lockheed’s usual customer base – top secret military projects. Will Lockheed commercialize the compact fusion reactor for civilian deployments, or will it be relegated to powering nuclear powered warships?
Bottom line is that we collectively must abandon fossil fuels as quickly as possible, and if we want to avoid reverting our society to the middle ages we must rapidly deploy clean electricity generation systems. We can’t afford to trust Lockheed’s claims because their fusion reactor design might not work out, or may take longer than they think to refine and productize.
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