October 18th, 2014 ~ Can Lockheed-Martin deliver a true fusion powerplant within the next ten years? Since I was a kid (back in the stone-age 50's) we've been told fusion energy was about 25-30 years away. Well, the 1980's, 1990's and 2000's came and went and we were still being told fusion powerplants are 25-30 years out. Suddenly, the brilliant minds at the "Skunk Works" (who brought us the SR-71 spy plane and stealth fighters/bombers) have announced (according to an EnGadget article by Daniel Cooper), their intent to perfect a compact fusion powerplant, small enough to fit on a flatbed truck, within a decade. The implications are as stunning as they are profound.
In the 1950's, Admiral Hyman Rickover spearheaded the development of the U.S. Navy's nuclear submarine program. The SSN-571, 'Nautilus' was the first, but by no means only result of that program. As compact as that fission reactor was, it was still a massive bit of extremely hazardous technology, requiring constant monitoring and regular (if infrequent) replenishment of its radioactive fuel.
Now, imagine a ship or submarine which would use sea water to replenish its fuel. That ship could remain "on station" for a VERY long time. It might need to come into port for a crew change, food and medical stocks, or minor repairs, but not for fuel. As I said. Stunning.
Not stunning enough? Okay, imagine cities surrounded by seawater with compact fusion reactors peppered throughout their environs. Scary, right? Scary, WRONG! Unlike current FISSION reactors, fusion reactors require active measures to continue running. Sabotage (or have an accident at) a fission reactor and you have Fukushima or Chernobyl. Why? Because fission reactors require active measures to prevent a runaway chain reaction; a meltdown or worse.
If something disables the controls of a FUSION reactor, the reactor simply stops. That's it. No heroes dying; no mass evacuations; no radioactive crap to clean up or store at Yucca Mountain for a period of time longer than all of recorded Human history. Oh, we do get an endless source of Helium and nothing exploitable for terrorist acts. As I said. Profound.
I sincerely hope Lockheed-Martin can deliver on its promise. But even if their physics is somehow flawed (which I highly doubt), fusion powerplants are coming sooner than the oiligarchy wants. I find it pleasantly ironic, that a major defense contractor, looking for new revenue, will probably provide an energy-hungry 21st Century world with the safe and secure energy solution none of the civilian energy giants ever wanted to see. That's the definition of enlightened self-interest and the dynamo of both stunning and profound change.