The defense firm Lockheed Martin sent tech geeks into a frenzy yesterday when it revealed a few scant details of a “compact fusion reactor” (CFR) that a small team has been working on at the company’s secretive Skunk Works in Palmdale, California. The company says that its innovative method for confining the superhot ionized gas, or plasma, necessary for fusion means that it can make a working reactor 1/10 the size of current efforts, such as the international ITER fusion project under construction in France.
Being able to build such a small and presumably cheap reactor would be world-changing—ITER will cost at least $20 billion to build and will only prove the principle, not generate any electricity. But with little real information, no one is prepared to say that Lockheed’s approach is going to spark a revolution. “You can’t conclude anything from this,” says Steven Cowley, director of the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy in Abingdon, U.K. “If it wasn’t Lockheed Martin, you’d say it was probably a bunch of crazies.”
The Lockheed team predicts that it will take 5 years to prove the concept for the new reactor. After that, they estimate it would take another 5 years to build a prototype that would produce 100 megawatts (MW) of electricity—enough for a small city—and fit on the back of a truck. A Web page with video on the Lockheed site even talks of powering ships and aircraft with a CFR.
Lockheed statements reveal little about the nature of the reactor. Aviation Week yesterday carried the most detailed account having interviewed the team leader, Thomas McGuire.