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Fusion in four years? Hey that's less than 20
September 16, 2013 4:09 PM   Subscribe

Fusion at Lockheed's Skunkworks lab

At Google's Solve For X, Charles Chase describes what his team has been working on: a trailer-sized fusion power plant that turns cheap and plentiful hydrogen (deuterium and tritium) into helium plus enough energy to power a small city. It's safe, it's clean, and Lockheed is promising an operational unit by 2017
posted by sammyo (66 comments total) 26 users marked this as a favorite

 
It's easy to promise anything, but results are what matters. I do hope the project is a success, 'cause everyone wants cheap, clean energy. But no one should be holding their breath.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 4:15 PM on September 16, 2013 [2 favorites]


...cheap and plentiful hydrogen (deuterium and tritium)...

Uh-huh.


...enough energy to power a small city.
...
Chase didn't give a whole lot more technical detail, but he seemed confident in predicting a 100mW prototype by 2017, with commercial 100mW systems available by 2022


That's a very small city.
posted by mr_roboto at 4:16 PM on September 16, 2013 [26 favorites]


I'm glad someone is making a serious effort to alleviate the impeding catastrophe that will occur when we deplete our reserves of helium.
posted by borkencode at 4:17 PM on September 16, 2013 [22 favorites]


Are.. are they going to kickstarter this? Are there stretch goals? Why announce it four years out?
posted by curious nu at 4:17 PM on September 16, 2013 [7 favorites]


Will definitely put this on my Amazon wishlist.
posted by MoonOrb at 4:22 PM on September 16, 2013 [1 favorite]


The mW's were a bad-science-writer typo. It was meant to be MWs.
posted by Cookiebastard at 4:22 PM on September 16, 2013 [2 favorites]


Well that would be a bit of a big deal.
posted by Artw at 4:25 PM on September 16, 2013 [1 favorite]


I've been talking about this elsewhere. LM hasn't said anything more than any other wunderkind of the fusion has said in the past, of which precisely none has come good and precisely all (who aren't still going) have failed.

I have a bad feeling about this. It's got all the signs of pseudo-science - announcement very low on details but heavy on the "Hey, cheap clean energy would be really good!" stuff. A skipping over the known problems (those neutrons, you'll stop them how? The irradiated components?). No equations. No data. No milestones. No sober (in fact, barely extant) discussion of the engineering. RF heating of plasma? Well, yes. Lot of that about.

And it's not as if LM has no track record of taking the money for stuff that will never work.

So yes, I wish it's true too. If only. But I've been bitten so many times in the past that sorry, but I want something substantial on which to erect my hopes.
posted by Devonian at 4:26 PM on September 16, 2013 [20 favorites]


I think it's reasonable to be suspicious of this because it's pretty much how you'd expect it to play out in a movie, with Science swooping in to save the day with magical Technology (except it would be a video rather than an article and the presenter would've been Morgan Freeman with an actual working demo). That said, this is an organization that has pulled off some pretty insane technical feats, so I think it's also reasonable to be slightly more optimistic than usual.
posted by feloniousmonk at 4:32 PM on September 16, 2013


I want something substantial on which to erect my hopes.

The large hardon collider wasn't enough?
posted by zippy at 4:32 PM on September 16, 2013 [8 favorites]


Fusion is four years away and always will be.
posted by double block and bleed at 4:44 PM on September 16, 2013 [4 favorites]


Mainly I just like the idea of stacking these in cargo containers all over the place.
posted by Artw at 4:45 PM on September 16, 2013


Uh-huh.

Deuterium, in the form of D2O and HDO is pretty common. About one in 6400 of the hydrogen atoms in ocean water is deuterium. When you think about just how much water there is in the ocean, you can see that there is a great deal of deuterium around.

Tritium is nowhere near as common -- whereas normal hydrogen and deuterium are stable, tritium has a half life of about 12 years, so natural sources are long gone. However, it's pretty easy to make -- hit lithium with a neutron beam. If you do this with Lithium-6, it's an exothermic reaction, releasing 4.8 MeV. This is a great deal of energy -- D-T fusion release 17.6MeV, so just making the tritium could net you 25% energy. However, the more common isotope is lithium-7, that needs a higher energy neutron and is endothermic, consuming 2.4MeV.

But if I've got the energy from DT fusion, I can make the tritium and still net plenty of power.

So, in terms of fuel -- we have plenty of hydrogen, deuterium and lithium, and can make tritium pretty easily.

The problem is the energy. You take one deuterium atom (1 proton, 1 neutron) and one tritium atom (1 proton and 2 neutrons) and you fuse them into helium, which is two protons and two neutrons, plus 17.6MeV of energy. If you've done the math, you'll notice that we also get a neutron, and most of that energy comes out in the neutron - 14.1MeV.

What that 14MeV neutron can do is a neat/nasty trick called neutron activation, where it combines with an atom and changes what isotope it is. In some cases, this makes it an unstable isotope -- read, radioactive.

Large neutron fluxes at high energies are bad, and the reason I seriously doubt this is workable is the large high energy neutron flux that comes from the D-T fusion reaction. The neutron activation problem is why we have Helium-3 proponents, it leaves two protons behind, which are much easier to control and don't tend to make things radioactive.

The problem with Helium-3 fusion is we don't have any Helium-3.
posted by eriko at 4:49 PM on September 16, 2013 [44 favorites]


Fusion is four years away and always will be.

Well, be honest. That is a major advance in the field!
posted by eriko at 4:50 PM on September 16, 2013 [16 favorites]


(those neutrons, you'll stop them how? The irradiated components?)

If they're clever they'll line the containment vessel somehow with Lithium-6 and generate more tritium with them. (But seriously, I have no idea if that's feasible; I was just checking how they produce tritium and noticed that it requires a stray neutron, which this system would seem to have in abundance.)
posted by Joey Buttafoucault at 4:51 PM on September 16, 2013 [1 favorite]


I don't have much hope that this will pan out, but you never know.

They claim to have a magnetic configuration that is way better than any that's been achieved before. From their picture of the inside of the plasma vessel, it looks like a internal dipole magnet suspended by metal struts from the vessel with some added external magnets adding other field components - hard to tell from the single port view they're offering. Dipolar fields have excellent plasma confinement properties, but those metal struts sticking through the plasma will never survive a density that can produce 100 MW. That tells me they are operating at waaay lower densities than their target, which tells me that even if they have achieved a beta of 1, they have major engineering challenges ahead of them before they get anywhere in the vicinity of a commercial reactor.

And as others have pointed out, if they're intending on using a D-T reaction, they haven't explained how they're going to breed tritium from lithium and gather heat and shield the vessel with materials that won't degrade under neutron bombardment in a truck trailer. In those respects, they're in the same unhappy boat as tokamak researchers.

Still, it would be pretty awesome if they succeed.
posted by Salvor Hardin at 4:52 PM on September 16, 2013


If there was a way to weaponise it, we would have had it years ago
posted by mattoxic at 5:14 PM on September 16, 2013 [3 favorites]


If there is a way to weaponise it, Lockheed Martin will find it.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 5:15 PM on September 16, 2013 [8 favorites]


Weaponise? Easy peasy unfortunately. It's the NOT blowing radiation all over that's the hard part.
posted by sammyo at 5:18 PM on September 16, 2013 [5 favorites]


I would love to spend 4 trillion on this.
posted by bottlebrushtree at 5:23 PM on September 16, 2013 [2 favorites]


Weaponise? Easy peasy unfortunately.

You could make it into a nuclear bomb by putting a nuclear bomb into it?
posted by Artw at 5:24 PM on September 16, 2013 [4 favorites]


I don't have much hope that this will pan out, but you never know.
posted by Salvor Hardin at 7:52 PM on September 16 [+] [!]


Maybe if you and your precious Foundation weren't so cagey about us knowing the secrets of nuclear fusion, we'd already have walnut-sized reactors by now...
posted by RonButNotStupid at 5:39 PM on September 16, 2013 [17 favorites]


You could make it into a nuclear bomb by putting a nuclear bomb into it?

Yo dawg, I heard...
posted by Chutzler at 5:40 PM on September 16, 2013 [9 favorites]


You could make it into a nuclear bomb by putting a nuclear bomb into it?

A sourdough bomb, if you will.
posted by MrBadExample at 5:45 PM on September 16, 2013


You could make it into a nuclear bomb by putting a nuclear bomb into it?

for many years we've heard calls for nuclear fusion and the joke that at every announced advancement it's always 20 years in the future. But we already have two kinds of fusion, experimental rigs that just make less energy than is put into the reactor. The other very exothermic kind is a particular type of bomb where the fusion reaction is triggered by a fission reaction. So yes, the biggest bombs are essentially a bomb in a bomb.

Hmm, as there is usually some kind of blasting cap to trigger sticks of dynamite, perhaps most bombs are a bomb in a bomb.
posted by sammyo at 5:53 PM on September 16, 2013 [1 favorite]


It could power a small city!
posted by East Manitoba Regional Junior Kabaddi Champion '94 at 5:56 PM on September 16, 2013


OK, I added 9/16/2017 to my calendar. Or do you think I should set the reminder earlier and pre-order?
posted by jepler at 5:59 PM on September 16, 2013 [2 favorites]


The problem with Helium-3 fusion is we don't have any Helium-3.

We do have some He-3. Not enough to put in party balloons, though.

But there is a lot of He-3 out there, for suitably large values of out there. Lunar regolith and the outer planets are the nearest filling stations. (And the Sun, I guess, although it's quite busy with its own fusion and may not be happy to share.)
posted by Devonian at 6:01 PM on September 16, 2013


Maybe if you and your precious Foundation weren't so cagey about us knowing the secrets of nuclear fusion, we'd already have walnut-sized reactors by now...
posted by RonButNotStupid at 8:39 PM on September 16

I could give you the standard speech about Hari Seldon and following his grand psychohistorical plan, but really we just like lording it over y'all.
posted by Salvor Hardin at 6:03 PM on September 16, 2013 [4 favorites]


But there is a lot of He-3 out there, for suitably large values of out there.
Or, indeed, for suitably small values of large.
posted by Wolfdog at 6:03 PM on September 16, 2013


The large hardon collider wasn't enough?

This is my favorite typo, and I ctrl-f every particle physics thread to see if it has, uh, reared its head.
posted by zeptoweasel at 6:13 PM on September 16, 2013 [16 favorites]


Fusion is about eight minutes away and will remain so for another billion years.
posted by jeffburdges at 6:14 PM on September 16, 2013 [80 favorites]


Fusion is about eight minutes away and will remain so for another billion years.

jeffburdges wins the thread!
posted by eriko at 6:17 PM on September 16, 2013 [2 favorites]


Weaponise? Easy peasy unfortunately. It's the NOT blowing radiation all over that's the hard part.

Nah, you just get Batman to fly it out over Gotham Bay.
posted by radwolf76 at 6:34 PM on September 16, 2013 [2 favorites]


I don't know, I kind of believe they're onto something. What does Lockheed have to gain by coming out and making extravagant claims? They're already sitting pretty with their Defense Department contracts. They don't need hype or attention.
posted by the jam at 6:58 PM on September 16, 2013 [4 favorites]


Are.. are they going to kickstarter this? Are there stretch goals? Why announce it four years out?

Because the sequester and a new general public distrust of black funds (Thanks, NSA) means project funding is now at risk. The plan was probably to put one of these babies in a carrier or two before declassifying... but the money's about to dry up.

It's also a sign that maybe the tech's not as solid as presented, otherwise it would sell itself to congress. Or the opposite. The 2045 date neatly coincides with the time the current oil and gas exploration boom is scheduled to dry up, no need to axe this program, Mr. Senator from an Oil State, sir.

DoD and big money contractor Kremlinology... fun for the whole family.
posted by Slap*Happy at 7:22 PM on September 16, 2013 [2 favorites]


Devonian: "But there is a lot of He-3 out there, for suitably large values of out there. Lunar regolith and the outer planets are the nearest filling stations. (And the Sun, I guess, although it's quite busy with its own fusion and may not be happy to share.)"

Obviously we should wait until night time when the sun's asleep and then steal its He-3. Duh.
posted by bluecore at 7:44 PM on September 16, 2013 [3 favorites]


Guys. Every now and then you have to swing for the fences. Even if you don't even find the ball. At least you'll make the pitcher nervous, and that's what's important.
posted by newdaddy at 7:49 PM on September 16, 2013 [3 favorites]


I wish they hadn't spent so much time talking how great it would be to have cheap energy. We know this already!

Imagine if some scientist thought his research would leasd to a cure for breast cancer, and spent half his presentation saying how great it would be to cure breast cancer.
posted by eye of newt at 7:54 PM on September 16, 2013 [5 favorites]


Well to be fair that would be pretty great.
posted by Big_B at 8:08 PM on September 16, 2013 [4 favorites]


Weaponise? Easy peasy unfortunately.

It's also possible to go the other way- to use H-bombs for power. One proposal involved detonating bombs deep underground, and then pumping water into the heated cavern to make steam. There were a number of technical problems that had to be addressed first, so nothing really came of it.
posted by happyroach at 8:26 PM on September 16, 2013


You get Helium 3 by taking Tritium and waiting. Why can't the method used to produce Tritium also produce Helium 3?
posted by It's Never Lurgi at 8:29 PM on September 16, 2013


The 5/10 year predictions are interesting when you compare them to what Bob Bussard was saying back in 2006.

More relevantly, this specific design is not impressing the few fusion researchers I know. Their take on it so far has been "unless they've cracked something fundamental, it can't work - it's a known design, the plasma just leaks out of the ends. " They're also mystified why Lockheed would come out with this now, at this stage of development, with press releases rather than papers. It just doesn't make sense.
posted by regularfry at 8:40 PM on September 16, 2013 [1 favorite]


> hy can't the method used to produce Tritium also produce Helium 3?

Lots of tritium available, but when it's plentiful it's too cheap to meter and not economically attractive to capture. In fact they are having trouble just giving it away.
posted by hank at 8:42 PM on September 16, 2013


That's a very small city.

"Trailer sized" is also very small. To give you an idea, my business has 3 "trailer sized" generators on its roof. They're .5MW. 1MW is equivalent to roughly 1000 homes usage. So for the same sized "trailer" these guys are claiming 100,000 homes. That means NYC could be powered by about 30-50 of them. Most definitely less space than an equivalent coal/gas plant, and probably less space than an average truck yard.

I hope this is real. Viable, cheap fusion is our only get-out-of-jail card for our energy problems and climate change.
posted by pashdown at 8:43 PM on September 16, 2013 [2 favorites]


Oh I get it now... mW/MW :/
posted by pashdown at 8:51 PM on September 16, 2013


So yes, the biggest bombs are essentially a bomb in a bomb.

Your basic thermonuclear weapon is a bomb next to a bomb, wrapped in another bomb (the DU reentry casing, which gets enough neutrons from the fusion stage to fission).

The biggest bomb was a bomb next to a bomb next to a bomb.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 9:13 PM on September 16, 2013


The biggest bomb was a bomb next to a bomb next to a bomb.

So it's bombs all the way down, then!
posted by 1367 at 9:24 PM on September 16, 2013 [3 favorites]


Isn't this just Inertial Electrostatic Confinement Fusion? I thought the energy wasted by "close misses" was enough to turn it net energy-negative.
posted by anthill at 10:12 PM on September 16, 2013


Isn't this just Inertial Electrostatic Confinement Fusion?

Sometimes getting an old idea to work properly is a major breakthrough.
posted by empath at 12:32 AM on September 17, 2013


If they're clever they'll line the containment vessel somehow with Lithium-6 and generate more tritium with them. (But seriously, I have no idea if that's feasible

I don't know if it's feasible or not, but a lithium blanket has been a feature of a lot of fusion reactor designs I've seen kicked about over the years. The lithium absorbs the pesky neutrons, extracts the reactor's heat (presumably there's a heat exchanger going off to your turbines), and breeds some tritium.

It seems to me it can't breed all the tritium you need though— each D-T reaction consumes a tritium atom and only emits one neutron; each neutron captured by 6Li only produces one tritium atom; unless you're 100% efficient at getting the neutrons into the lithium you'll need some other source of tritium as well. Maybe run some fission reactors to breed extra fusion fuel…
posted by hattifattener at 1:12 AM on September 17, 2013


Fusion is about eight minutes away and will remain so for another billion years.

Well now I have to steal this.
posted by atrazine at 1:14 AM on September 17, 2013


Also in Fusion news...

There seems to be a lot of credible people putting their money and mental horsepower into near-term fusion projects recently. I wonder if the critiques that emerged in '95-'96 helped define solvable problems rather than discouraged further engineering attempts?
posted by Slap*Happy at 4:47 AM on September 17, 2013


But no one should be holding their breath.

Sure, suck up all the hydrogen with your first-world breathing habit.
posted by yerfatma at 5:17 AM on September 17, 2013 [1 favorite]


Finally, we will be able to power our moon laser and Reagan's ghost will finally be at peace.
posted by Atreides at 5:50 AM on September 17, 2013


In "Related Stories: Lockheed Martin plans world's largest thermal energy power plant..."

You know, in case this whole 'fusion' thing doesn't pan out.
posted by From Bklyn at 6:04 AM on September 17, 2013


Isn't this just Inertial Electrostatic Confinement Fusion? I thought the energy wasted by "close misses" was enough to turn it net energy-negative.
posted by anthill at 1:12 AM on September 17


Nope, this is it's much better funded cousin, magnetic confinement fusion.
posted by Salvor Hardin at 6:49 AM on September 17, 2013


Next press release from Lockheed:

We have cloned an army of Kelly Johnsons, and will shortly begin pumping out an endless stream of stunningly gorgeous aircraft. Forever.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 9:25 AM on September 17, 2013 [3 favorites]


Odd...the Skunkworks usually waits until they've been using world-changing technology they invented a couple of years before letting the normals know about it.
posted by kjs3 at 9:52 AM on September 17, 2013


The problem with Helium-3 fusion is we don't have any Helium-3.

No problem. Sam Rockwell clones on the moon.
posted by Thoth at 9:58 AM on September 17, 2013 [2 favorites]


Sure, now that the Greys released Element 115 (Ununpentium) from the Regulus star system (it's a hike from Zeta Reticuli) and Bob Lazar's clone completed the Babylon Working allowing Area 51 and S/4 to be declassified and you know how important Damascus is to the Greys, what with all the
.... but perhaps I've said too much.
posted by Smedleyman at 10:42 AM on September 17, 2013 [2 favorites]


Viral marketing for the Back to the Future remake.
posted by entropicamericana at 2:19 PM on September 17, 2013


If the whole fusion thing doesn't pan out we can always try to poop electricity.

Gives a whole new meaning to "skunkworks"...
posted by Hairy Lobster at 6:16 PM on September 17, 2013


Maybe run some fission reactors to breed extra fusion fuel…

Proton beam into beryllium will give you a nice stream of high energy neutrons, perfect for making tritium from lithium.
posted by eriko at 6:51 PM on September 17, 2013


So yes, the biggest bombs are essentially a bomb in a bomb.

Yo dawg, I heard you like to explode...
posted by Edgewise at 9:03 PM on September 17, 2013


From Bklyn: "In "Related Stories: Lockheed Martin plans world's largest thermal energy power plant..."

You know, in case this whole 'fusion' thing doesn't pan out.
"

Um, a fusion plant is a thermal energy plant.
posted by IAmBroom at 5:25 PM on September 21, 2013


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