Today, Lockheed Martin, the largest supplier to the US military, made a stunning… amazing… announcement.
The Lockheed Martin [NYSE: LMT] Skunk Works® team is working on a new compact fusion reactor (CFR) that can be developed and deployed in as little as ten years.
Every time I think about this, I get shivers. This is unbelievable. And, I remain skeptical.
While I want this to be true, I can’t help but think about this. Let’s compare to another fusion project.
The International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) is a project by a consortium of 15 countries. At the present time, it is hugely over budget (by $45 billion). Construction won’t be finished until 2019 and the first tentative steps into large scale fusion will begin in 2020. The project isn’t scheduled for a full-power constant fusion until 2027. ITER is not considered to ever be a production powerplant. It’s a pure research facility. Production powerplants would come sometime (well) after 2030, if they can be built much, much, much more cheaply.
But Lockheed Martin, a large company to be sure, says that they will have production powerplants in 10 years time. These powerplants will be compact… they are claiming “truck transportable”.
Most people have never heard of Lockheed’s Skunk Works. It’s the elite of the elite engineers and scientists. These are the people who produced the SR-71 and the F-117 Nighthawk stealth ‘fighter’. The SR-71 first flew in 1964 and was operational in 1966. The plane has held the world speed record for air-breathing, manned flight since 1976. Air-breathing in this case means some kind of jet engine. Rocket powered aircraft have gone faster.
If the people at the Skunk Works say that they can do this, I’m not going to bet against them.
Still it’s something to consider. Lockheed Martin says that they are now looking for government and industry partners and that they have several patents in progress for the reactor.
The possibilities are impressive. The Lockheed Martin fusion power website lists some.
Obviously, Lockheeed Martin considers the military applications. Current US Navy aircraft carriers and submarines are powered by nuclear fission and replacing them with fusion would make them safer. Plus, it could probably be easily retrofitted to all ships.
More interestingly, they are saying that one of their fusion reactors could power a 100 Megawatt turbine for producing electricity. These could be developed in place of coal, gas, and oil-fired power plants. Plus, the small size would allow them to be transported once built in a factory.
But the most interesting and exciting application of a small fusion plant is spacetravel. Something that fits on a truck could possibly be launched by Space X’s Falcon Heavy. Space travel is heavily limited by fuel. Moon shots were a few minutes of massive thrust, then coasting to Moon over 3 days. The same process for going to Mars would mean coasting for 6 months. But with a small fusion plant that could turn small amounts of common water into highly energetic thrust, it may be possible to accelerate halfway to Mars, then turn around and slowdown. Making the same trip in days or weeks instead of months.
This is a very, very exciting breakthrough. if it’s real. I will withhold judgement. I don’t think that a company like Lockheed Martin would make an announcement like this if they couldn’t deliver. But there could be other factors involved (big announcement, drive up share price, CEO cashes out and pockets millions).
I really want this to be true.