Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Fusion Energy: It May Actually Happen

Thirty years ago, fusion was going to be the clean-energy source that powered the future. Big names and big institutions were involved in fusion research. It eventually became clear that unlocking the power of fusion was not going to be an easy thing, nor was it going to be as economical as we were promised.

Fusion was a disappointment, and it disappeared from the public eye; however, it continued to be pursued quietly in laboratories, large and small, around the world. It only made the news when a crackpot would announce his crackpot "breakthrough" and everybody would get a good laugh out of it.

Well, one of those laboratories, where dedicated researchers simply kept hammering away at the problems of fusion, finally has some good news to report. Lockheed's famed Skunk Works, the birthplace of the U-2 and SR-71 spy planes, a bunch of other flying machines and the Sea Shadow stealth ship, has announced ... well, here's how a Reuters reporter puts it:

"Lockheed Martin Corp said on Wednesday it had made a technological breakthrough in developing a power source based on nuclear fusion, and the first reactors, small enough to fit on the back of a truck, could be ready for use in a decade."

Thomas McGuire, the team leader, says they've been working on this fusion project for four years (only four years?!) and they can build and test a real reactor in less than a year, and have a working prototype sometime in the next five years.


This is the Real Thing. And it's a compact design, too, not the stadium-sized Tokamaks that the big names were dreaming about.

After all the crackpots that have come and gone, this is something worth watching. The Skunk Works (officially known as Lockheed's Advanced Development Programs organization) is not known for its crackpottery. For its revolutionary designs and out-of-the-box thinking, yes. That was part of its original charter. For its solid science and engineering, applied in ways that would turn our perception of reality on its ear, definitely. For its nimble operations, for sure. And for its ability to keep its collective mouth shut and let the results speak for themselves ... well, other organizations (and individuals) could take lessons from the Skunk Works on this rare and precious skill.

Stay tuned. This is gonna get very interesting, very soon.

UPDATE: If you want to read a more detailed and technical article about the Skunk Works fusion reactor, here's an excellent article in Aviation Week and Space Technology.

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