Amid the headlines about Ebola in America, Islamic State atrocities and other stomach churners was one that seems innocuous but could have great importance for planet Earth: “Compact fusion reactor in the works” (TNT, 10-19).
The operative word, of course, is “could.” But we’re going to keep an open mind that the same division at Lockheed Martin Corp. that developed such cutting-edge aircraft as the F-117 Stealth fighter might be on to something big.
Last week Lockheed’s Skunk Works researchers announced making headway on developing a compact nuclear fusion reactor – small enough that it could fit on a flatbed truck and be shipped anywhere in the world but powerful enough to light 80,000 homes.
If successful – fingers crossed! – practical nuclear fusion reactors could replace existing plants that burn coal and oil and dump vast quantities of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. They might also replace conventional nuclear fission reactors, which don't emit carbon dioxide but generate more radioactive wastes.
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Wind and solar power, the most promising renewable sources of energy, need the sun to shine and the winds to blow; they don't provide steady "baseload" electricity. A fusion reactor would be a more-or-less constant source of power.
With 2014 being the warmest year on record, the race is on to find carbon-free energy sources that don’t emit greenhouse gases. Lockheed isn’t alone in pursuing nuclear fusion technology. Among others are at least three in the Northwest, including a University of Washington team funded by the U.S. Department of Energy, Helion Energy of Redmond and General Fusion of Vancouver, B.C. And the European Commission has announced it would spend $1 billion to develop a nuclear fusion energy source by 2020.
Lockheed has patents pending on its approach to fusion technology and hopes to have a completed prototype within five years and commercial application within a decade. It envisions the nuclear fusion reactors providing energy not only for cities but for airplanes and ships.
Many scientists are skeptical that Lockheed’s approach can translate the hypothetical into reality. One of the UW team’s scientists, Thomas Jarboe, doubts that Lockheed’s engineering would prove cost effective. Before Lockheed’s announcement, he told UW Today that his team’s concept “has the greatest potential of producing economical fusion power of any current concept.”
The high-energy physics of nuclear fusion may be outside the comfort zone of most Americans, but the bottom line is: How great would it be for the world to have relatively cheap power that doesn’t hurt the environment? The fact that many scientists are pursuing that goal holds hope for the future.