Somerset House, Strand, London, WC2R 1LA

Follow us on:

The Alvin Weinberg Foundation is now a charity! Support us for a better nuclear future!

Posted by Mark Halper

Let’s get together. Charles Chase of Lockheed Martin says that putting atoms together in the company’s fusion device is the key to the world’s cheap, plentiful energy future free of CO2 emissions.

A few weeks ago, I noted that there is a growing stable of companies, many small and some venture-backed, that is tackling the elusive challenge of nuclear fusion.

Driven by entrepreneurial spirit and not by the colossal state budgets that define the large international governmental fusion projects such as Europe’s ITER and the U.S.’s NIF, one or more of these entities is likely to crack the fusion nut first, I said.

Almost on cue, another company has trotted into the fusion corral: U.S. aerospace stalwart Lockheed Martin.

Speaking last week at a Google “Solve for X” event (it’s a bit like a TED gathering, but organized by the ubiquitous search engine/media company), Charles Chase from Lockheed’s “Skunk Works” group described a transportable, 100-megawatt fusion machine that he said will be grid ready in 10 years and that – here’s a bold claim – could provide all the world’s baseload power by 2050.

“There are still 1.3 billion people in the world without electricity,” Chase says in a YouTube video of his presentation. Noting that the planet could nearly double its energy consumption by 2050 to 28 terawatt year, he says that the Lockheed fusion technology, “might be able to bring energy for everyone.”

Like the smaller start-up  companies that are gearing up to beat ITER and NIF to the grid, Lockheed’s fusion device shuns the massive size of the 20-story ITER tokamak under construction in France, and the 3-football-field-long NIF laser facility in Livermore, Calif., and does so by deploying technology that’s yet again different.  A short list of other companies working on fusion variations include General Fusion, Helion Energy, Lawrenceville Plasma Physics (LPP) and Tri-Alpha Energy.

FIRST YOU TAKE SOME DEUTERIUM

The Lockheed machine heats deuterium gas with radio waves, generating a plasma that a magnetic field holds and confines. In principle, this confinement would hold long enough for deuterium to fuse with tritium –  both are isotopes of hydrogen – creating helium and the all important heat that would then drive a turbine.

It is a superior variation on the the ITER approach to magnetic confinement (NIF uses lasers, not magnets) that allows Lockheed to make a much smaller device, says Chase, whose LinkedIn profile identifies him as “senior program manager, revolutionary technology” at the Palmdale, Calif. Skunk Works division of Bethesda, Md.-based company.

Lockheed will build a sub-100MW prototype version by 2017 that will measure about 1-meter in diameter by 2-meters long. The 100MW grid-ready unit will be about twice that size, he says.

Listening to Chase talk, I’m struck by how similar his claims are to those made by leaders and developers of fission alternatives to conventional nuclear, such as thorium and molten salt reactors.

He describes a reactor that is meltdown proof, leaves no long-lived radioactive waste, emits no CO2, and has a ridiculously higher energy density than fossil fuels. He also talks about the ease of transporting the compact machine on a truck, about desalination uses, about decentralized power in developing region, and, being from an aerospace company about how the machine could propel a craft to Mars in a speedy one month.

Here’s a slide from his presentation, which I grabbed from the YouTube video:

You’ll see that his list also includes “no proliferation issues” and “unlimited, low cost fuel supply.” I’m not sure any nuclear technology could ever absolutely claim either of these.

On proliferation, let’s not forget that thermonuclear weapons rely on fusion technology. On a related note, California’s NIF facility is funded by a defense-oriented group at the U.S. Department of Energy, and one of NIF’s international partners is a U.K. Ministry of Defence group called the Atomic Weapons Establishment.

As for an unlimited supply of fuel, while deuterium is easy enough to obtain, tritium is a different story. Several fusion schemes call for extracting it in a fission reaction between lithium and neutrons emitted in the fusion process. And tritium’s radioactivity will require special attention.

Then again, there are other fusion techniques, such as the “aneutronic” approach under development at LPP, Tri-Alpha Energy and elsewhere, that use different processes and elements.

THE IN-OUT CHALLENGE

And of course there’s no guarantee that Lockheed will manage to do what all fusion projects have failed at so far: harnessing more continuous energy than what goes into the reaction in the first place.

To get there will require a top notch blend of science, engineering and money. On the money front, it is interesting to note that Chase presented in a Google forum. Google itself has made significant investments in sustainable energy including solar, wind and geothermal. One would assume it is contemplating nuclear.

Along the same lines, it was a venture capitalist, Steve Jurvetson, who broke the news about Chase’s Lockheed presentation last week – on the Flickr website. Juvertson is managing director of Silicon Valley VC firm Draper Fisher Jurvetson, whose investment portfolio includes technology standouts such as Tesla Motors, SpaceX and Hotmail.

As I noted in my CBS SmartPlanet blog earlier today, Jurvetson said nothing about backing the Lockheed project. But in the grand slam, home run oriented world of venture capital, you’ve got to believe that the possibility of solving fusion would keep guys like Jurvetson swinging. General Fusion and Tri-Alpha have already drawn VC funds.

If the money bags are smart and broad in their thinking, they will also be looking at some of the fission alternatives. Fifteen percent of a thorium molten salt reactor company, anyone?

Comments

    • Bob says:

      LENR is irrelevent to this. Even if it worked, which is uncertain, it would not stop a successful fusion reactor in the marketplace.

      • AlainCo says:

        I feel the opposite.
        classif hot fusion is too radioactive and difficult to survive LENR.
        aneutronic easier fusion, have no intrinsic advantage on LENR.
        energy density of the fuel is the same, the machinery is small with LENR, less heat, simple technology…

        fission, wind, solar, oild, coal, are in danger because too complicated and expensive too.

        hydroelectricity may be saved, because we need dam for flood control and irrigation.
        oil/gas may be used for plastics and planes (until SUGAR-LENR+electric style planes take the market).

        question is whether LENR vehicles will require hybrid structure, and whether the hybrid will be electric-only, or sometime will use an intermediate fuel like hydrogen or synthetic hydrocarbons.

        • dennis says:

          Aneutronic fusion would have a huge advantage: direct conversion to electricity, no need for a turbine, with an extremely low resulting cost.

    • Jim Anderson says:

      I think both technologies can and will coexist. The cost of energy produced will be key to the relative use of each one. In small and medium applications Lenrs lack of radiation sheilding will be a key factor. The smaller size and lesser complicity of the Lockheed Martin device may lead to a lower cost of energy production. The existence of both technologies will lead to greater efficiency. The Lockheed device will help LENR to be taken more seriously.

  1. PBM says:

    Fusion bombs use fission bombs as an ignition source. The only way this technology could be directly weaponized would be if the radio waves/electromagnetic/laser confinement could deliver more or less the same energy needed to compress the heavy hydrogen as a fission weapon in a similar fraction of a second, something very unlikely. The only way around this limitation would be to distribute the heavy hydrogen and compression in such a way that the initial fusion reaction provides the ignition source for the rest of the uncontrolled reaction. Also possible, but also not very likely.

  2. praos says:

    In LENR devices I could not see substatial economies of size, and problems of stability limit modul sizes to 10-100 kW(t). So a sizable plant would need tens or even hundreds of thousands of modules; a maintenance nightmare. The direct conversion is, of course, out of questions. All that point to conclusion that advantages of LENRs will be most visible in small units ranging from less than 1 kW(t) to about 100 MW(e), used for space heating, generation of industrial heat, propulsion of small to modium sized vehicles and cogeneration. But in the GW range hot fusion (esp aneutronic) will reign supreme.

  3. tjim says:

    “creating helium and the all important heat that would then drive a turbine”. I wonder how the small Lockeed device could survive the heat necessary to turn steam turbines capable of producing 100 MW. .

Leave a Reply

Sign up to our newsletter!
* = required field

@thorium_wf

Great article by @STindale on why we should support #nuclear! Kudos to @the_ecologist for promoting debate http://t.co/EldXJ5TJIy
- Thursday Apr 17 - 1:12pm

DECC's Prof Mackay on innovation to solve climate change (missing next-gen nuclear!) http://t.co/WvbvUQiS1D via @DECCgovuk
- Thursday Apr 17 - 11:27am

#Thorium energy and #LFTRs on @TheEconomist http://t.co/qhObbUH5kw
- Friday Apr 11 - 4:08pm

Categories

  • Economics (63)
  • Efficiency (47)
  • Proliferation (31)
  • Safety (52)
  • Security (12)
  • Uncategorized (17)
  • Waste (48)
  • © The Alvin Weinberg Foundation 2014
    The Alvin Weinberg Foundation is a registered UK charity. Charity number: 1155255
    The Alvin Weinberg Foundation web site uses cookies to record visitor patterns.
    No personal information is collected, in accordance with our cookie policy

    Design by Tauri-tec Ltd and the Alvin Weinberg Foundation