Kickstarting the New Atomic Age?
Lockheed Martin's Skunk Works claims it's had a breakthrough in creating a Compact Fusion Reactor the size of a semi-trailer but capable of safely powering 80,000 homes, while LENR receives its own boost in the form of a 32 day-long test.
I just watched the Lockheed Martin video in which Dr Thomas McGuire talks about the promise of their compact fusion reactor or CFR, a proposed semi-trailer-sized powerplant that can produce - in theory - enough heat energy to generate power for 80,000 homes without the risk of a nuclear meltdown or eon's worth of radioactive waste or the threat of weapons proliferation.
Still, as compelling as the idea is of thousands of miniature suns with the footprint of an RV cleanly powering entire communities around the world, I couldn't help shake the feeling that what I was viewing was not much different than your typical Kickstarter video where hopeful entrepreneurs from quirky little startups pitch their products: a fancy watchband, a rock concert, a slick new electric skateboard, a pocket-size fusion reactor.
As one commentator put it, Lockheed Martin's press release and video were long on hyperbole and short on substance. They promised all sorts of wonderful things, from working nuclear-powered airplanes to the rebirth of the Atomic Age. By the way, I've been to Idaho Falls National Lab and seen their pair of first generation, 1950's era nuclear aircraft engines. It takes two railroad flatcars welded together to hold each of them. They didn't work then and a fair number of fusion energy researchers, on hearing Lockheed's announcement, question the merits of the famed Skunk Works concept of small-is-better.
The sun is 1.39 million kilometer in diameter fusion reactor. The enormous heat and pressure inside its core fuses hydrogen into helium and in the process generates light and heat, sustaining life on earth some 93 million miles away. According to fusion energy experts, for fusion to be possible on earth, you need a giant machine capable of magnetically containing the superheated plasma that makes fusion possible. What Lockheed's McGuire is saying is that you don't need a 10-story machine to do the job. A much smaller device that can easily fit on the back of a flatbed trailer is a more cost-effective way forward.
The secret appears to be the way they contain the plasma. Without revealing any technical secrets, they claim they can sustain fusion more effectively because the more the plasma presses against the invisible 'walls' of the magnetic field encircling it, the stronger the field becomes. In essence, the magnetic field does the same job as gravity on the sun. The enormous outward pressure of the light and heat produced inside the sun is kept in balance by the restraining pressure of gravity.
The most important question not answered by McGuire and the video also has to do with energy balance. Until recently, all previous fusion experiments have, as a general rule required more energy input than the system output. If it takes 10 units of energy to produce even 9 units power, what's the point? There has to be a net energy gain for any energy system to make economic sense and so far nobody's demonstrated that, other than for a briefest moment in time.
Based on what Lockheed's Skunk Work's has said up to now, we don't know if their system will generate more energy than is put into it. For his part, the youthful McGuire is cautiously optimistic, publicly stating he foresees having a working prototype in five years and a commercial version that can bolted up to any gas turbine power plant in ten.
Lockheed's announcement of its compact fusion reactor concept - and 'concept' is the operative word, since they've not actually built and fired one up - overshadowed another fusion experiment: this one even smaller but just as controversial.
A group of independent researchers from Italy and Sweden recently reported on a month-long test they conducted of Andrea Rossi's E-Cat Low-Energy Nuclear Reaction device or LENR. [Report here]. For reasons not understood, the hydrogen-infused blend of lithium and nickel not only produced more heat energy than was used to begin and maintain radioactive-free generation, running at temperatures up to 1400C and producing some 1.5MWh of power over the 32-day test -- but even more inexplicably, the composition of the material changed.
States the abstract to "Observation of abundant heat production from a reactor device and of isotopic changes in the fuel"…
" The isotope composition in Lithium and Nickel was found to agree with the natural composition before the run, while after the run it was found to have changed substantially.
Nuclear reactions are therefore indicated to be present in the run process, which however is hard to reconcile with the fact that no radioactivity was detected outside the reactor during the run."
Something inexplicable occurred to change the isotopic composition of the lithium and nickel. This has left everyone scratching their heads, including Signor Rossi.
As you'd imagine, like the Lockheed announcement, the LENR report was also met with its share of criticism, with the usual claims of fraud and trickery. The lesson appearing to be that if what you're proposing doesn't conform to our present understanding of how we think the universe works, then you can expect to run into a wall of negativity, be you the vaunted developer of the world's highest flying (U2), fastest (A12/SR71), and stealthiest (F117) aircraft, or a little-known Italian experimenter.
Are we about to witness the rebirth of a high-temperature Atomic Age or the birth of a low-temperature one? For moment I am hoping on Rossi, but I wouldn't rule out the Skunk Works either.
Originally published: 17 Oct 2014
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