Lockheed, give me something I can believe - There’s just no evidence of any fusion breakthrough

by Pramod Dibble 21 Oct 2014
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                I’m a nuclear energy nerd. This has been established. So when Lockheed Martin announced a breakthrough in the design of a fusion reactor small enough to fit on the back of an 18-wheeler, I was the most excited person in my office. And amongst my friends. Pretty sure I was obnoxious about it.

                The people who develop a net-energy gain fusion reactor will change the world forever. Fusion energy will supplant fossil fuels in areas where renewables are not well suited, and allow for a truly sustainable energy future. Using deuterium and tritium harvested from the ocean (there is an effectively limitless supply of these elements) these reactors could power any demand-dense area, leaving solar, wind, and hydro power to areas where regimes are attractive. And just like that, global warming and energy shortages vanish.

                That’s why I’m disappointed. There is no evidence to suggest that Lockheed Martin’s breakthrough is anything of the sort. What actually happened is they issued a press release for a theoretical reactor design that hasn’t been tried in all the decades of fusion R&D. Which doesn’t mean it’s good; one fusion researcher at the University of Washington called the design “four times as bad as a tokamak [the current leading technology]”. Another specialist in this field comments “We know of no materials that would be able to handle anywhere near that amount of heat [generated by the reaction]”.

                As a matter of fact, the Lockheed release focuses more on a prototyping procedure than any technological advancement. They state that by building small reactors, they can develop and test designs in months rather than years, refining and improving with each iteration. Which is all true: but does not imply that they have discovered solutions to the immensely complex scientific challenges that still surround commercially viable fusion reactors.

                To drive the point home, Lockheed has not released any data from tests of this new reactor design, or scientific papers proving theoretical viability. These two steps will be required for the scientific community to engage in any peer-review process, before which any claims Lockheed makes will be perceived as a PR stunt.

                I would love to be wrong about this. If I am, and Lockheed builds a net-gain fusion reactor in the next decade, I’ll throw a party, and you’re all invited. There will be butlered horderves, lots of beer, and a magic show. But as long as the kindest of the feedback uses language like “an interesting concept”, and “very early stages of exploration”, I think I won’t be holding my breath.

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