The news: For years, nuclear fusion has been the holy grail of alternative energy: Unlike fission, which splits atoms to create energy, fusion is the cleaner, safer, and more powerful alternative that combines atoms into a more stable form. But it hasn't been a viable option on a mass scale. A new design could change that.
On Wednesday, Lockheed Martin's secret development team Skunk Works went public with plans for a nuclear fusion reactor about the size of a jet engine that could generate enough energy to power entire cities, ships, airplanes and even spacecraft through interplanetary travel. While the project is still in its early stages, the team hopes to create a prototype in five years and have an operational reactor within a decade.
"By containing this reaction, we can release [the heat] in a controlled fashion to create energy we can use," Lockheed said in a statement. "The heat energy created using this compact fusion reactor will drive turbine generators by replacing the combustion chambers with simple heat exchangers. In turn, the turbines will then generate electricity or the propulsive power for a number of applications."
This is potentially game-changing. According to Lockheed, its model is about 10 times smaller than other reactors, with 10 times the power output. It would also be exponentially cleaner and more efficient than traditional energy sources, such as coal, and help alleviate the growing global conflicts over energy. The splashy announcement, the defense giant hopes, will generate interest in the project and help researchers move to the next stage.
"We've strategically chosen this time because of our technical progress and exposure to our patents pending," a Lockheed spokeswoman told the Washington Post. "We are also looking for partners to work with us on the project, plus we think it is important for the public and decision makers to understand the real promise that compact fusion has for our nation and the world as a near-term solution to our energy needs."
While it's still too early to determine whether Lockheed will live up to its expectations — and there is a healthy amount of skepticism over whether this project can be pulled off — just the idea of it is exciting, and its sheer ambition could help spur the rest of the energy development sector into action.