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Nuclear Fusion is Ideal. But How Real?

The science first must be conquered, then the costs.

Can nuclear fusion become a reality within a decade, at least for small-scale projects? That’s the aim of Lockheed Martin, which says that its truck-sized reactor has the potential to develop safe and abundant power that could solve the issue of climate change.

Nuclear fusion has the potential to endlessly power the planet. If scientists are ultimately able to achieve success, the result would be the production of 10 million times more power than a typical chemical reaction, such as the burning of fossil fuels. And it would occur without the carbon emissions or the disposal of high-level radioactive waste.

To be clear, fusion is different from fission, which is how today’s nuclear reactors produce energy. Fission splits atoms apart whereas fusion combines them – a process that thus far consumes more energy than it generates. The aim, though, is to heat the hydrogen gas to more than 100 million degrees Celsius so that the atoms will bond instead of bounce off each another.

“Nuclear fusion is the process by which the sun works,” says a statement by Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works fusion program. “Our concept will mimic that process within a compact magnetic container and release energy in a controlled fashion to produce we can use.”

Lockheed goes on to say that its truck-sized reactor could provide energy for 100,000 people. Why so small when most such projects would take up a football field? It says the concept uses a high fraction of the magnetic field pressure to make its devices 10-times smaller than previous projects.

And not only is it smaller, but it is then able to handle temperatures of up to hundreds of millions degrees, which can be released in a controlled fashion. That heat will then drive turbine generators by replacing combustion chambers with simple heat exchangers, says Lockheed.

Beyond the defense contractor, there are some high-profile firms backed with venture capital working on nuclear fusion projects, all of which use different technologies to achieve the extreme heat levels needed to start the fusion process: Amazon’s Jeff Bezos is investing in Canada-based General Fusion while Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen is investing in Irvine, Calif.-based Tri-Alpha Energy.

That’s good news for a concept that has made slow but steady progress over the last several decades. The central question, though, is whether the process can ever yield enough heat to fuse permanently those atoms that are needed to commercialize such power.

The National Academy of Sciences is saying that the field is still in its “early stages” and that critical challenges remain. Then there’s the European Parliament’s green movement, which calls ITER funding not just wrongheaded in the aftermath of the Japan’s Fukushima but also a “ticking budgetary time bomb.”

ITER, or the International Nuclear Fusion Project, is a partnership among the Europe Union’s member states, the United States, Russia, China, India and South Korea to get a fusion demonstration project up -and-running. At least $20 billion has gone into that research and development – and far more will be required.

“Fusion will never be a practical source because it requires vast resources and technical capital,” adds John Kutsch, executive director of the Thorium Energy Alliance, in an earlier talk with this reporter. “On paper it looks awesome. But when you get down to practicalities, it is beyond our capabilities.”

The good news is that some of the technical hurdles are getting solved. The Lawrence Livermore National Lab has said that it had surpassed a milestone that is the equivalent of “breaking the sound barrier.” Others, such as the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, are trying to figure out “cold fusion” –  a low-temperature nuclear reaction.

Advocates of fusion say that the science can be conquered. It’s the political will that is required to edge ahead – one to overcome entrenched energy interests, which may be threatened by new technologies. If that courage can be mustered, more venture capitalists will get involved, which might just create a more a sustainable energy future.

Ken Silverstein is Editor-in-Chief of Public Utilities Fortnightly magazine. He can be reached at Twitter: @Ken_Silverstein