An American defence company claims it is on the verge of launching a new atomic age with a truck-sized fusion reactor that could be tested in less than a year. Lockheed Martin expects to unveil a prototype of its compact fusion reactor (CFR) by 2020.
A decade from now it could be powering warships and in 20 years providing a source of virtually limitless clean energy around the world. Unlike conventional nuclear fission that relies on splitting atoms, fusion harnesses the same forces that drive the sun.
Super-hot atomic nuclei are fused together to release huge amounts of energy, while avoiding harmful radioactive waste. Although the dream of fusion power has been pursued for decades, it has so far failed to live up to its promise. The Lockheed team, which has been quietly working on the project for about four years, says the secret of its success was to stay small.
Team leader Dr Tom McGuire said: "Instead of something the size of a building, we have something the size of a large truck. "Small is the reason we can do this quickly. If something's small, you can build up momentum; you can develop it fast. It doesn't take five years to design it, it takes three months. We can design it, build it, test it, under a year."
The CFR is being developed at Lockheed Martin's secretive Skunk Works facility in California, which created the U2 and Blackbird spy planes. A decision to "go public" about the project was taken because of pending patents and the need to find industry and government partners to take the technology forward.
The initial design is for a 100 megawatt reactor measuring 10 feet by seven feet that could be loaded on to the back of a large truck. As well as providing clean energy, compact fusion reactors have the potential to revolutionise sea, air and even space travel, it is claimed.
Speaking in a Lockheed Martin video, Dr McGuire said: "Fifty years ago when people were super-excited about nuclear power, we tried to put it in everything, including aeroplanes. There were some big operational issues; it wasn't safe. Fusion is a much safer option - a next generation of aeroplanes that doesn't rely on fuel, that can just stay aloft. Unlimited range, unlimited endurance. That's what nuclear fusion can do for an aeroplane.
"He envisaged compact fusion reactors taking the place of gas turbines in power stations to provide a readily available source of emission-free energy. Dr McGuire added: "The true atomic age can start. Ten years, we have great military vehicles. Twenty years, we have clean power for the world."
Production of the prototype will follow a round of design-build-test cycles, the first of which could be completed in less than a year. Last week the European Commission announced an 850 million euro (£677 million) initiative to develop nuclear fusion as an energy source by 2020.
Key to any form of nuclear fusion is the ability to handle temperatures as high as 100 million centigrade - hotter than the sun's core. Generally this is done using a "magnetic bottle" to confine the hot electrically-charged gas, or plasma. "Our compact fusion concept combines several alternative magnetic confinement approaches, taking the best parts of each, and offers a 90% size reduction over previous concepts," said Dr McGuire.
Using a deuterium-tritium fuel source, the reactor would generate nearly 10 million times more energy than the same quantity of fossil fuels, according to Lockheed Martin. Deuterium is a heavy isotope, or atomic strain, of hydrogen found in the Earth's oceans, while tritium is a radioactive hydrogen isotope derived from lithium.
The company said it hoped future reactors would use a different source of fuel to eliminate radioactive waste completely. Professor Roger Dargaville, head of the MEI Energy Futures Group at the University of Melbourne, Australia, said: "In moving towards a low carbon energy system, necessary to avoid dangerous climate change, it is important to consider all options.
Nuclear energy is low carbon, and will be an important part of the electricity generation fleet in various countries around the world where other low carbon alternatives are not viable. "The potential for the use of fusion reactors over fission is exciting news as the dangerous by-products of fission reactors are a major disadvantage of the technology."
Professor Steve Cowley, head of the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy in Abingdon, Oxfordshire, said: "We're aware of claims of a 'technological breakthrough' in nuclear fusion by the Skunk Works group at Lockheed Martin. We cannot make any informed comment until further details of the performance of this device are revealed.
"We will continue to advance fusion on large scale tokamak devices (such as the European JET project based at Culham, which has achieved 16 megawatts of fusion power) and await further information on the Lockheed Martin project with interest."