The Pentagon’s DARPA arm is known for its attempts to reduce devices to microchip size. Projects have included multi-purpose sensors, cryogenic coolers, video cameras, and apparently, “Chip-Scale High Energy Atomic Beams”–microchip-sized nuclear fusion reactors.
The project, which has a modest budget of $3 million in 2009, aims to “offer precise, micro actuators and high electric field generation at modest power levels that will enable several order of magnitude decreases in the volume needed to accelerate the ions. Furthermore, thermal isolation techniques will enable high efficiency beam to power converters, perhaps making chipscale self-sustained fusion possible.” Self-sustained fusion at a chip scale is a challenge, especially since large-scale nuclear fusion isn’t yet possible. The $13 million International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), located in Caradache, France, will develop significant amounts of power by 2026 if all goes well.
DARPA’s mini fusion reactors, on the other hand, might not make it that far. The Chip-Scale project isn’t in the 2010 budget, which means that it’s finished for now. If ITER works, it wouldn’t be a stretch for DARPA to resume research on a handheld device.