Fusion has long been touted as the panacea for the world's energy woes. Scientists have sought to harness the same reaction that powers the stars in an effort to meet the world's ever-growing global energy demands. Announcements of advances in the field are often met with excitement and grand plans for a greener planet, but scientists have a long way to go — and many obstacles to overcome — in creating fusion reactors for widespread use.
On Oct. 15, Tom McGuire, the head of a project at a secretive research division of Lockheed Martin Corp., announced that the company has made significant strides in recent years in developing a compact fusion reactor, and he touted the possibility of developing a useable, compact reactor within the next decade. Lockheed Martin is certainly no slouch when it comes to developing new technologies and bringing them to market. However, McGuire's timeline is incredibly optimistic given the current state of the technology. Even if Lockheed Martin were to meet its goals, widespread incorporation could take several more years or even decades. That said, if or when the power of fusion is harnessed, it could shift the paradigms of the global energy system in manner similar to the advent of the modern oil industry in the mid-1800s.
Nuclear fusion occurs when two different atoms combine to form a different element. Fusion reactors like the one described by Lockheed Martin fuse deuterium and tritium, two isotopes of hydrogen, which then form an isotope of helium and release neutrons. The release of these subatomic particles releases energy, which heats the reactor walls to drive turbines, producing electricity in a familiar fashion.
One of the main limitations to scientists' work with fusion has been the large amount of energy needed to start a reaction. Exceedingly harsh conditions, including extremely high temperatures, are needed to initiate the fusion reaction. Additionally, the plasma (ionized gas, generated in this case by heating the deuterium and tritium fuel) must be contained by either a powerful magnetic field or high-energy lasers. All of these requirements take large amounts of energy. It wasn't until February that scientists at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California published repeatable results of the first fusion reaction that created more energy than it stored. The International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor facility in France — an international collaboration that could cost an estimated $50 billion — is billed as the first large-scale fusion experimental reactor to produce net power, but it is not scheduled to begin operations with plasma until the 2020s. Moreover, the goal for the facility has been to produce an energy gain (and only for a short time), collecting data necessary for a subsequent operational power plant, not to produce electricity for use. Andrea Rossi's E-Cat, a purported cold fusion device, was recently independently tested and verified to produce an anomalous amount of heat attributed to a nuclear reaction, though the team remained skeptical about the operations of the device itself.
The design released by Lockheed Martin seeks to eliminate many of the size limitations of other fusion facilities by changing how the plasma is confined. Significantly decreasing the size of the reactors while producing the same amount of power would increase the potential for practical use. But even the optimistic head of the facility acknowledges that this technology remains in the early stages of development and that there are still hurdles to overcome before a viable prototype can be built. The Oct. 15 announcement was intended in part to attract academic, industrial and governmental partners to help advance the technology.
Previous shifts in energy consumption paradigms — whether thermal power generation or reliance on oil-based fuel for transport — have relied on fuel sources that have limited reserves. With global energy demands expected to increase by more than 40 percent between 2012 and 2035 and the international community increasingly looking to develop sustainable, low-emission energy sources, interest in technologies that meet these requirements will grow. Fusion — especially fusion that occurs at lower temperatures (not Lockheed Martin's concept) — could be seen as the ultimate solution. Deuterium and tritium are both widely available; the former found in seawater, the latter derived from lithium. Moreover, once a fusion reaction is initiated, sustaining it would require significantly less fuel than traditional fossil fuel sources of power.
However, it is important to note that Lockheed Martin's concept would still initially rely on existing power infrastructure. Thus, even if the technology proves viable, it would not provide immediate independence from the current system. Moreover, the cost of the technology will likely remain high, possibly limiting widespread adaptation.
Meeting the energy demands of a growing global population will thus remain a challenge for years to come. The Oct. 15 announcement from Lockheed Martin, a well-respected company, indicates that the goal of harnessing fusion for that purpose may be closer than we could have imagined, but significant hurdles and constraints lie ahead. Although fusion remains elusive, it does not mean that we should not continue reaching for — or attempting to imitate — the stars in a quest to meet future global energy demands.