Nuclear fusion has long been the holy grail as a source for energy. Consider that one kilogram of natural gas will light a hundred-watt light bulb for six days, but one kilogram of nuclear fuel will light it for 140 years.
Unfortunately, there is some truth to the old joke that fusion power is ten years away—and has been for fifty years. Major government-funded projects such as the giant International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) under construction in France lend credence to this adage. The ITER is thirty meters tall, weighs twenty-three thousand tons, and has one million parts. With an original budget of $6.6 billion footed by seven participating countries, the cost is now estimated at $21.4 billion, and will certainly continue to rise through completion.
Construction on ITER began in 2010 and is scheduled to be completed in 2019. The goal of the ITER project is to produce five hundred megawatts of power for one thousand seconds—that’s a little over sixteen minutes. Not exactly a practical and efficient power generating station.
ITER won’t produce any marketable electricity; its only purpose is to demonstrate the ability to generate heat energy. Some two hundred government-funded reactors of similar design have been built to date throughout the world. Not one of these has generated more energy than it takes to run it.
Now, however, Skunk Works Advanced Development Center at Lockheed Martin has announced a radically new fusion reactor design that promises to break the jinx of that old joke. Charles Chase, senior program manager at Skunk Works, appeared recently on Google’s Solve For X program to talk about the reactor’s design.
This hundred-megawatt reactor can fit on a flatbed truck for transport wherever power is needed, and can be operational as a prototype by 2017. Production units can be available by 2022. A Skunk Works fusion reactor of this size provides enough electricity to power a small city of fifty thousand people. The reactors can be manufactured rapidly on a production line, as against the tens of years needed to design and build one of today’s coal- or natural gas-fired power plants. The reactors do not generate any long-life radioactive waste; they don’t require weapons-grade plutonium or uranium; they cannot melt down; and, if they fail, they automatically and safely shut down.
Such reactors hold great promise to provide cheap, safe, and abundant energy anywhere it’s needed—or, as Chase puts it, “Energy for Everyone” (the title of his talk). With these reactors in mass production, the capacity and vulnerability of the power grid would no longer be a concern. Environmental thugs, such as those who demand that 95 percent of our fossil fuel usage be eliminated, would have to make up some new fiction to maligne the new life-serving advancement. And life-loving people would live better, safer, healthier lives.
Cheers to the brilliant men and women at Skunk Works. And Godspeed to you in mass-marketing this magnificent product.
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Creative Commons Image: Steve Jurvetson