Lockheed Martin announced yesterday that it has made what Reuters calls a "technological breakthrough" in the area of compact nuclear fusion. The upshot is that reactors "small enough to fit on the back of a truck" could be here within 10 years. As Forbes explains, nuclear fusion combines two atoms into one, creating as much as quadruple the energy as nuclear fission (when an atom is split in two), and it does so without producing radiation. Project head Tom McGuire says Lockheed has been working on its compact fusion concept secretly for four years, but it's now looking for industry and government partners. "The smaller size will allow us to design, build, and test the compact fusion reactor in less than a year," says McGuire, with a prototype coming in five years. But some are skeptical:
- At Ars Technica, John Timmer points out that "details as to what the breakthrough is are missing." Timmer writes that an original version of Lockheed's press release, which has apparently since been taken down, said something along the lines of "If everything goes well, the design could 'be developed and deployed in as little as ten years.'" Timmer calls that "if" a "big one." The version of the press release that's currently available drops the "if."
- Mother Jones notes that the media is losing its mind over the news, using headline words like "paradigm-shifting." But a researcher for the Large Hadron Collider points out that the promise of a compact reactor is currently theoretical, and a thermonuclear plasma physicist goes even further, calling Lockheed's announcement "poppycock." As he explains, it's very difficult to make fusion reactors that small, because you need an extremely small space plus lots of very dense material, and "we know of no materials that would be able to handle anywhere near that amount of heat."
- So what's going on? Timmer suspects Lockheed is doing a "publicity offensive" because Lockheed needs commercial partners to help fund all the research that comes next. The Reuters article and press release are joined by a technical article in Aviation Week, though even that acknowledges that "many key challenges remain before a viable prototype can be built." Timmer's take: "By making the developments sound inevitable, the company increases its chances of attracting someone to share the risk."
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