There are a couple of science and technology challenges so difficult that anyone promising they’ve made a “breakthrough” should be met with more than a few raised eyebrows.
Nuclear fusion–the process of harnessing the energy released from the joining of two atomic nuclei–is high on the list (probably right up there next to curing cancer). This is because, so far, the energy needed to smash the two atoms together and contain the reaction is greater than the energy the reaction produces. A power source that doesn’t produce energy isn’t particularly effective.
It’s not actually clear that the defense contractor Lockheed Martin ever promised it had made any sort of nuclear fusion breakthrough in a news report that circulated the web this week. That was courtesy of a Reuters journalist, who wrote the original article with scant details about the nature of the breakthrough.
The Lockheed press release cautiously stated its Skunk Works division has “built on more than 60 years of fusion research and investment to develop an approach that offers a significant reduction in size [of the reactor] compared to mainstream efforts.” It hopes to build a far smaller reactor than current designs. If all goes well, the team “anticipates” a prototype in five years, and could deploy it in a decade.
As Ars Technica points out, a more technical article published in Aviation Week goes into detail. The general concept is similar to previous versions of what are called Tokamak designs, but Lockheed says it has made the process more efficient. However, there are still many challenges left to overcome.
Martin Greenwald, associate director of the MIT Plasma Science & Fusion Center, says that neither Lockheed’s press release nor its video fully explain the approach, leaving a number of key questions unanswered, such as how their configuration relates to others that have been tried. Nor do they show any results, he notes, such as what temperatures have been achieved and how long they’ve sustained their configuration. The diagram in the Aviation Week article, he says, “doesn’t look particularly novel–perhaps a mash-up of a couple of concepts that have been around for awhile.”
“There’s really no evidence to back up their claims,” he wrote in an email. “But it’s hard to tell without a real technical description.”
He added: “It’s a good thing that Lockheed is articulating the advantages of fusion energy and maybe they’ve made a breakthrough–which would be good. But I wouldn’t put money on it.”