1. They certainly are “hiding the ball” here. Smaller and cheaper with faster development times doesn’t really give much insight as to HOW they are going to do that. A mini-Tokamak? Dense plasma pinch? Polywell? Laser inertial confinement? No clues given.

    1. They don’t tell on this vid, but the Aviation Week article does give details. This is a rather standard magnetic bottle with magnetic mirrors on the ends, a geometry that was tried and given-up-on in the 1950’s. Lockheed’s improvement is finding a way to catch the ions leaking from the cusps and re-injecting them back into the bottle, sharply reducing ion loss.

  2. (For the universe to be in balance – for every Yin, there must be a Yang)

    Unlike Rod, I really believe that fusion will come in forms smaller, cheaper, and sooner than most energy analysts now anticipate.

    Here is a link to an article at The Next Big Future Blog that does a good job reviewing the current status.

    Fusion has a real advantage over fission today as regards the current level of regulatory obstruction from NRC.
    While this may not seem significant, it could make a real difference in how quickly fusion will emerge as a commercial technology in forms people will want to build and own to produce power.

    1. Robert – you and Brian are nice guys, but I’ll maintain my skepticism. Fusion has no advantage over fission because it has never produced any useful power. That statement has nothing to do with NRC obstruction.

      1. Careful with assumptions, Rod.
        You say that “Fusion has no advantage over fission because it has never produced any useful power.” But you have already stated in the story how “useful power” isn’t the only reason for a project. If your objective isn’t to make useful power, but to obtain a government grant, and grants are being awarded for fusion (but not for fission), then fusion certainly does have an advantage over fission.

        1. @Rick Armknecht

          Good point. I should have said “Fusion has no technical or practical advantage over fission because it has never produced any useful power.” What was I thinking?

          Of course it has a long history of being far more generously supported by the Department of No-Energy that will compete with fossil fuels in the reliable power market.

    2. I’m with Rod on this one, for several reasons, one of which being that I don’t think the NRC will give a regulatory pass to a fusion reactor. As long as a containment is required, you are simply swapping out a fusion reactor for a fission reactor, as fusion does nothing to the change the balance of plant. My expectation is that a fusion reactor would also be required to withstand severe weather events and plane crashes, just like a LWR plant; i.e. you would need a containment. It is also possible that the NRC will loosen its regulatory stranglehold on the industry as it stands, or that the fission industry will flourish outside the NRC jurisdiction, as in China or Russia.

      Fusion has little inherent advantage over fission. The only reason for the fusion hype is the irrational fear of fission. The energy density of a fusion reaction is not a game changer. Per unit mass, the DT reaction is 4 times more energetic, but per unit volume fission (uranium) is 70 times better. To match a LWR (or Candu if you wish) a fusion reactor will be much larger. There is no shortage of uranium, or thorium if you wish, and the cost of electricity is practically insensitive to the price of uranium anyway. Yes, you can find fuel for a fusion reactor in seawater, but you can do the same with a LWR.

      Fusion cannot be more reliable that the existing LWR fleet. The US fleet has a capacity factor of over 90%. This is perfect for all practical purposes, and it is hard to imagine that a fleet of hundreds of fusion reactors would exceed this level of performance.

      Fusion cannot be safer than fission. The LWR safety record is flawless with regard to public health and safety. Fusion offers industrial safety challenges, such as use of large of amounts of lithium, that the LWR does not. A fusion plant will be a large complex structure, unlikely to offer any improvement in industrial safety per unit output relative to the LWR, which in any event has an enviable safety record, at least here in the US.

      Fusion generates somewhat less waste, but LWR spent fuel is not a significant environmental problem. The back end of the LWR fuel cycle might comprise 5% of the cost of electricity. Reducing this to, say, 1% is not dramatic.

      1. The volumeric efficiency of fission over fusion is not something I had considered. Do you have a link or explanation for how ‘per unit volume fission (uranium) is 70 times better’ was calculated? This suggests that fusion power plants will be horrendously expensive (large). At a guess the average fission plant is the size of football field, and equivalent fusion plant the size of the stadium including single level car park.
        Makes me wonder if there will be usable heat from the diffuse near vacuum plasma? i.e too large an area for too little heat.

      1. Here is the Commission’s reply to SECY 2009-064 so everyone has the full story:


        Of particular note is the last sentence: “The staff, however, should wait until commercial deployment of fusion technology is more predictable, by way of SUCCESSFUL TESTING of a fusion technology, before expending significant resources to develop a regulatory framework for fusion technology.”

        [CAPS added for emphasis]

    3. Brian Wang posts some interesting articles but he is far too gullible. He’s far too optimistic about all sorts of scams and silly ness such as LENR fusion, Polywell and muons and whatnot.

      Follow the money. What we have for real evidence is ITER, a project that costs 50 billion dollars and generates exactly 0 Watts electrical, that is if it works at all which with current technology is barely credible.

  3. Lockheed guys are pretty smart. They basically took Kirk Sorensen’s LFTR talk and repackaged it for fusion. However, there seems to be a lot more evidence that the LFTR can be developed than fusion. You also get most of the positive results that is claimed for fusion.
    Maybe oil people will even support it because it poses no immediate threats to their businesses.

    1. Kirk Sorensen has spoken briefly about fusion. He pointed out that you start with fuel at the density of a near vacuum. Then you have to get charged particles, which want to repel each other, close enough together to fuse. This requires very high temperatures, so you need to confine all this inside of magnetic fields. Compare this to fission where the fuel is the density of a solid or liquid. The particles to run the process have no charge (neutrons). And for reactions to proceed well, the particles need to be slowed down (moderator). Slow neutrons and atoms of U235 “want to” come together to cause fission rather than repelling each other. The process can be run at rates where the heat produced can do a nice job of boiling water. Note that all this is so complicated that it occurred in nature, in relatively small volumes, millions of year ago when U235 was naturally more abundant. Continuous fusion also occurs in nature, but it takes objects the size of the sun to do it.

      My skeptical light is glowing brightly. The promise of fusion power in the near future got my attention when I was 12 years old. I went on to get a degree in electrical engineering and spent my whole career in that field. I am now retired. Chances are very good that the speaker in the video will also find himself retired before fusion power becomes practical.

  4. Either way, I wish them well.

    There are advantages to having a steady supply of funding. There’s also benefit to being able to start from scratch multiple times. Having one big Tokamak that takes years to build or redesign seems like it is slowing down innovation and experimentation.

  5. Lockheed has no technology breakthrough, as far as I can determine. They are apparently working on an old and failed design, magnetic mirror. Tokamaks are horrible and don’t work in any practical or economic way, but Tokamaks were quickly chosen over magnetic mirror designs.

    Lockheed does have a breakthrough, in the amount of press they are getting. Probably to do with the big name.

    Big name, big claim, no game. Lockheed has no coolant, no blanket design, no shielding design. They freely admit this yet make an announcement about a “breakthrough”. It is like saying I have a new car design which is a breakthrough but I haven’t selected an engine, tires and body yet. But I have a design, really!! And it runs on peat, we already know that.

    Small hot plasma reactors don’t work. They have too much surface area for heat loss and the neutron damage problems of a high power density design like Lockheed’s are at least 10x worse than the already intractable problems of ITER.

  6. The only thing surprising about this, is that it is Lockheed making the claims. It really makes no sense. It’s not like Lockheed needs ‘government money’, they are already making gazillions. The total program cost for the F-35 is $1T (yes that is a T) for 150 planes.

    There are plenty of experts out there commenting, and it doesn’t sound good.

    I’m with Rod in that I don’t see any advantages for fusion over fission, I left a comment on NBF to that effect a couple of weeks ago. Unlimited fuel (so does fission), and fusion DOES produce radioactive waste (maybe less … ). Fission is here NOW and there are lots of good ideas to improve it that seem like engineering exercises (not to minimize) that, but no new Physics required.

    Anecdote: a graduate student friend of mine told me he was getting out of Plasma Physics … because it was going nowhere … that was in 1980. By that time we had been at it for at least 20 years.

  7. The thing to be skeptical about here is that Lockheed isn’t releasing even one of the Lawson criterion numbers from their initial test shots. Certainly they have at least some of these data, and the only reason they would sit on it is because it would show how many orders-of-magnitude they are from break-even.

    If they had anything really promising, they would be releasing numbers, and they wouldn’t be asking for other people to sink money into it.

  8. Because I did my graduate work examining the fusion engineering side, not the nuclear plasma physics, I am always interested in how the various groups tout how their project will solve all these various problems with fission reactors. I understand why they do this, to give the best light to get funding to solve the basic plasma physic issues, but they make it sound like the other parts are trivial.

    While they can be addressed, but you are dealing with 14 MeV neutrons flying all over the place and to research plus solve them takes time and testing. For example, you need a robust structure just for shielding purposes. You also need a system that will breed more tritium (Li blankets), be able to efficiently recover and put that tritium into the fusion device without having a rad health issue for the tritium losses that come with this isotope of hydrogen (fortunately tritium’s rad hazard is not very high) and have a plant setup to do all of your fusion reactor maintance remotely. I’d like to hear from Lockheed Skunkworks how they plan to address those issues.

    I know, they won’t face those until later, but they are the ones that need to be answered to get a license. So if they want to be in operation in a few short years, better start working on the rest of the issues now.

    My joke is if they can get this working and once it ends it’s useful operating lifetime, it can be used as a food/product irradiator for a number of years afterwards as part of its decommissioning plan.

  9. First of all, the Lockheed Martin “news” is not really new. There is a video clip available via the American Nuclear Society’s “Nuclear Cafe” from 18 months ago, showing a talk given by a Lockheed Martin engineer on the compact fusion reactor design. As far as I can tell, nothing has changed since that video was posted. Which may be indicative of how likely it is that the concept will actually result in anything practical in the relatively near term.

    Second, for those looking at the various proposals and concepts that have been floating around in the “compact fusion” field (for the past 10 years or so), recognize that you’re looking at least two completely different fusion technologies. One, like Lockheed Martin’s, is based on conventional deuterium/tritium fusion–which also means that issues such as neutron shielding become very important, since each fusion reaction results in emission of a 14 MeV neutron. The other is so-called “aneutronic” fusion, which involves hydrogen (or, in ionized form, a proton) and boron. The p-B fusion reaction results in 3 helium atoms (or alpha particles–hence the name “Tri-Alpha” for one of the companies working in this area) and no neutrons. The purported advantage of this approach is, of course, the lack of high-energy neutrons; the disadvantage is that the reactants must be at around 1 billion deg. Celsius, as opposed to “only” about 100 million C for D-T fusion. Whether the necessary temperature (or energy) could be reached, and whether the result would be a net positive production of energy are unanswered questions.

    But it’s also true that fusion has been “5 years away” for the past 40+ years. (Plasma physicists were saying in 1970 that “breakeven” could be achieved by 1975.) And after breakeven is finally reached, the real fun begins: solving the practical engineering problems involved in designing a machine that can operate reasonably reliably over a long period of time while (roughly speaking) reproducing the conditions in the center of the Sun. As I heard a materials engineer say about fusion in the late 1980s, “If you think getting the physics right has been challenging, wait till you start working on the engineering problems.”

    (And for those of you who seem to enjoy bashing the NRC, lighten up. The NRC will not be looking at this for many years. When they actually have a real reactor design to review, you’ll be able to see how they treat it. Right now, they have other things to worry about.)

    1. All of this hype about fusion (both Lockheed’s hot fusion and Rossi’s cold fusion) seems to be timed very conveniently to try to take the wind out of the sails of the nascent fission revival, doesn’t it?

        1. Rod–

          With all due respect, I think you’re being just a bit too cynical here. Fission is a marvelous technology, and I’ve spent nearly my entire career (35+ years) working on it, but let’s be honest: it does have some “issues,” not least of which is the fact that every 20 or 30 years, we seem to have an accident (Windscale, TMI, Chernobyl, Fukushima) that causes at least significant societal impacts in the vicinity of the plant, even if the public health impacts are minimal. Fusion does hold out the promises of, among other things, a supply of fuel that will last for millennia and (likely) a less daunting waste problem than is the case with fission. Getting to a practical energy-production system is a huge challenge, but that sort of challenge has always attracted a few hardy souls who want to push the edge of the envelope.

          Even if fusion turns out not to be practical as an electric power production technology, I don’t think one can dismiss the R&D effort out of hand. There have been significant advances in materials science, plasma physics, computer modeling capabilities, and other technologies that have developed out of the efforts on fusion. The Large Hadron Collider at CERN uses supercooled, superconducting magnets. I’m betting the fusion R&D effort contributed to the design of that machine, which has already made major contributions to high-energy physics. (Higgs bosons, anyone?)

          As for the amount of time it’s taking, look how long it took (and how much money it cost, in today’s dollars) to get from Goddard’s first experiments in rocketry to manned space flight. Let’s not denigrate a technology or the people who work on it just because we may think the likelihood of near-term success is relatively small. There’s a scientific “big picture” that has to be considered, beyond our parochial concerns.

          1. @oldnuke

            Sorry, but I strongly disagree. Fusion research has captured the majority of public investment in “nuclear” R&D for more than 40 years. Amazingly enough, those expenditures are often used as an argument against nuclear energy because they are rolled into what antinuclear activists point to as “subsidies” for the technology.

            The byproduct advances might be as real as the byproduct advances associated with manned space flight. They are also about as expensive a way to obtain them because they were an accidental effect of a different target.

            Instead of comparing fusion research to rockets, let’s compare it to fission.

            1934 – first uranium fission when Fermi pointed neutrons at uranium, but not recognized at the time.
            1938 – fission recognized
            1939 – utility of slow neutrons recognized
            1942 – breakeven chain reaction achieved with experimental pile that took a month to assemble and cost roughly $200 K in then year dollars
            1953 – STR simulated crossing the Atlantic
            1955 – underway on nuclear power
            1990 – more power produced in nuclear plants in US than in entire US grid in 1960
            2000 – world nuclear fission power output 12 million barrels of oil equivalent

            I’m not opposed to millions worth of R&D for fusion, but we’re already spending hundreds of millions to a few billion every year.

            In contrast, think about all of the hype associated with the ONE current DOE grant program for fission R&D – $452 million over a six year period for Small Modular Reactors.

            BTW – the cure that will address most of the remaining fission issues is recognition that there are safe doses of radiation and that the “no safe dose” myth was purposely created and has been carefully maintained as a way to restrict nuclear fission energy production. Allowing fission to grow at a rate determined by its technical limitations would have flooded the world’s energy markets and led to a dramatic collapse in the price of all competing fuel sources.

            The leaders of organizations (corporations and even entire countries) that would be harmed by that disruption had a fiduciary responsibility to do everything in their power – including playing dirty – in order to prevent that from happening. One of their dirty tricks has included creation of an entire movement cloaked in warm and fuzzy slogans purporting to be “environmentalists.”

          2. “….but let’s be honest: it does have some “issues,” not least of which is the fact that every 20 or 30 years, we seem to have an accident (Windscale, TMI, Chernobyl, Fukushima)…..”

            I’m curious why the Rocketdyne incident is never included in these comments, about past accidents. After all, were there ever subsequent accidents involving reactors that lacked containment structures, occurring directly adjacent to a heavily populated area? Seems theres still a bit of a “cover-up” going on, or is it just that there is very little known about the event due to the initial cover-up?

      1. That was my (possibly paranoid) hypothesis as well. There are folks in congress finally saying we need to keep fission. I think I read about one hearing to look at what can be done to prevent plant closures. There’s the scandal of the NRDC/EPA bedmates. Etc.

        Fission has a little, tiny bit of limelight, and this very public announcement comes out.

        I would not be surprised if someone in the Reid/Markey/Boxer camp told Lockheed, “Create a distraction. It might ding your reputation a little, if anyone remembers five years from now, but in the meantime, we’ll pay you off with a nice chunk of government (taxpayer) money in a research grant with very favorable terms.”

        Waiting to hear about the payoff. Of course, the payoff could be something else completely, not so clearly linked to the (probably) bogus announcement.

      2. If “Rossi” is a reference to the so-called e-CAT, I think that’s simply a scam. (I suppose one could argue that’s true for much of what’s broadly referred to as “cold fusion,” but I’ll leave that argument to another time and place.) The ultimate capability of “hot” fusion to serve as a power production technology may be open to debate, but at least there’s no argument about whether it actually exists.

    2. Good comment Oldnuke.

      One slight correction. P-11B does produce some neutrons, in the ballpark of 10% of fission neutrons perhaps (exact figure can vary). Much lower than D-T fusion, but 10% of fission is still big in terms of materials damage and huge in terms of biological effect (the unshielded neutron flux from a p-B11 fusion reactor, if it would work at all, will kill you in seconds). It is also big enough to cause neutron activation concerns.

      I know its called aneutronic but that’s a bit of a misnomer.

      1. There’s always a story behind the story. Sometimes there’s even a smoking gun. We’ll have to watch this one and see.

        1. That argument works the first time a company makes big claims. It will work a couple more times, but after so many suspiciously similar claims (100 MWe fusion reactor, short develop time, breakthrough tech etc etc) I have become fed up with this argument.

          It takes a little reading to understand the issues with fusion reactors. The more you read the more dismayed one becomes. There isn’t a single intractable engineering problem, there are several. There isn’t a single economic problem, not one cost item that dominates and as such a single breakthrough would cut cost. There are many cost items.

          The ITER project is the furthest along. It is going to cost 50 billion dollars and it will generate 0 kWh of electricity, if it works.

      2. Thanks for the clarification. Yes, some of the secondary reactions in p-B fusion do result in neutron production, but as I understand it, the energy of the neutrons is far less (1-2 orders of magnitude) than is the case in D-T fusion, meaning that such a (hypothetical) reactor would be easier to shield.

        Its proponents refer to it as “aneutronic.” (I’m not a proponent, just an interested bystander.) I agree that that is not an accurate characterization.

    3. @oldnuke

      Your statement “But it’s also true that fusion has been “5 years away” for the past 40+ years.” reminds me of the old fusion joke:

      “Fusion is the energy source of the future and it always will be….”

  10. There is much about this press release which is peculiar. The ostensible reason for it is that Lockheed is seeking partners. Typically, companies will seek development partners when they lack sufficient resources or expertise to proceed, or because there is some urgent need to accelerate development. Presumably, Lockheed has no shortage of funding, and also presumably, this compact reactor would have an immense market if they could pull it off, so one would think it would have a funding priority commensurate with that. And if the problem is that they don’t have the R & D chops to pull it off, then that would make this press release premature, to say the least. But if there is some urgent need to go faster, that would suggest they see some rival technology as an imminent threat–in which case this press release could also serve to scare investment dollars from competing projects. Whatever the true reason for this release, the stated reason seems implausible. Lockheed doesn’t need press releases in order to approach potential partners, and there wasn’t enough information in the press release to attract and engage potential partners.

    There was a recent joint effort from people interested in developing domestic rare earth resources as well as uses for thorium at a legislative solution–an effort which was abruptly killed when the Department of Defense operated behind the scenes to kill the bill. Supporters of this legislation have focused on the rare earth aspect of the bill–thinking that defense contractors have moved a lot of their production operations to China because of their rare earth monopoly, and they would prefer not to have to move production back to the U.S.. But I have to wonder if one particular major defense contractor might have been focused on the thorium development aspect of the bill.

    And shortly before the Lockheed press release, the editors of Nature argued that ITER was sucking all the resources from alternate approaches, and they particularly singled out the shoestring-budget Dynomak and Focus Fusion efforts as being deserving of funding consideration. With the Lockheed release, it seems likely the funding drought for alternate approaches will only deepen.

    I don’t know whether Lockheed is actually onto something, but it at least looks like they believe they are onto something. Hard to see what they could hope to gain if this is a sheer hoax.

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