Lockheed Martin’s famed Skunk Works, renowned for developing advanced weaponry like the U-2 spy plane and the F-117 stealth fighter, has filed multiple patents relating to a new nuclear fusion reactor design. For those who follow this sort of news, you may be overwhelmed with a kind of muted excitement. Why is this? For decades, scientists and engineers from around the world have promised fusion power “in the next ten years,” while time slipped persistently by.
The enthusiasm people feel for nuclear fusion power requires some knowledge of what fusion entails. Unlike nuclear fission reactors used today, which split atoms in order to harness the power expressed by Einstein’s famous equation, E=mc^2, fusion power relies on the energy released by the combination of atoms. While fission has been used in nuclear weapons and all nuclear power facilities to date, fusion has the potential to give us the power of the sun (literally), without some of the drawbacks of traditional nuclear power. Our sun, like all active stars, produces its energy from fusion reactions occurring in its core. The primary fuel for the sun is hydrogen, which fuses to form helium in the core of the star.
As one can imagine, it requires tremendous feats of engineering and imagination to create a stable environment for a similar reaction process here on earth. Experiments focus on heating gas so that the atoms separate into ions and electrons, at which point the ions fuse and release remarkable amounts of energy. The primary problems encountered have been producing more energy than consumed and containing the plasma in a stable environment.
The design proposed by Skunk Works has been worked on for about four years, and the team is now emerging with a request for partners in the private sector and government. What makes the design very exciting is that it is compact, about 90% smaller than previous concepts. This might enable the team to experiment on more compressed time frames and facilitate production and use. The proposed reactor would use deuterium-tritium fuel (two isotopes of hydrogen) in power plants, along with potential applications on ships and airplanes. Lockheed proposes that it should have a concept reactor ready within the decade. Though a path wrought with risk and uncertainty, if such a reactor succeeds, we would be able to harness ten million times the energy as we do with the same amount of fossil fuels.
As mentioned, the Lockheed team is not alone in its pursuit of an economical fusion reactor. Notably, there is a large international effort to build a fusion reactor in France called ITER. It relies on something called a “tokamak,” like most fusion experiments, to contain the superheated plasma which fuels the reaction. Though it is hoped that the reactor will produce more energy than it consumes, delays and cost overruns have set the project back to 2027 and a cost of $50 billion.
As government efforts centered on ITER stall in a quagmire of delays, might the private sector come to the rescue? It appears that the creators of fusion reactor designs are turning to both the patent system and trade secret to protect their potentially world changing inventions. For example, a patent was filed last year by a researcher in Spain for a fusion reactor using inertial confinement. In addition, a secretive company called Tri Alpha seems to be relying on trade secret to protect its project, which ultimately hopes to fuse protons with an isotope of boron in a linear reactor, as opposed to using conventional tokamak technology. The boron process would require higher temperatures to create fusion, and some skeptics warn that the alternative design needs a lot more work before it might be commercially viable.
So while some of the world is wary of nuclear power after the meltdown at Fukushima, Lockheed Martin, or some other player in the field, may pave a way forward for cheap, environmentally friendly nuclear power.
Matthew Sumner is a J.D. candidate, ’16, at the NYU School of Law.