Research into alternative energy resources could be on the verge of a major breakthrough that could change the world forever.
The military contracts company, Lockheed Martin, has been working on a safer version of nuclear energy known as "compact fusion." The research is being conducted by Lockheed Martin’s Advanced Development Programs (ADP), nicknamed Skunk Works by the company due to its focus on advanced or secret projects.
If the technology proves to be a viable success, then there is the potential to create portable compact fusion energy sources small enough to provide limitless power for aeroplanes, spacecraft and naval vessels. Project leader Dr Thomas McGuire said if the project vision is realised, the “true atomic age can start."
“The old adage about ‘Atoms for Peace’ was a noble one but ultimately flawed because the technology wasn’t right for it,” he said.“We can achieve that grand vision and bring clean power to the world.
“Fifty years ago when people were super excited about nuclear power we tried to put it on everything, including planes," said McGuire." There were some big operational issues; it wasn’t safe.”
The reactor being developed by the Skunk Works team is built to utilise nuclear fusion, a process that mimics exploding stars by fusing two hydrogen atoms into a single helium atom at mega-hot temperatures. This can release ten times more energy per mass than the atom-splitting fission reactors currently in use, though without the production of dangerous and enduring radioactive waste.
“If you take a gas and heat it up, eventually it separates into its ions and electrons. When the ions get hot enough they can overcome their mutual repulsion and collide — fuse — into one piece. When they do that they release a lot of energy, a million times more powerful than a chemical reaction for example. What we’re trying to do is control that reaction,” said McGuire.
Reports from the project maintain that the level of contamination from the new-style reactors was considerably less than that produced by current nuclear power reactors.Dr McGuire said the compact fusion reactor represented an energy solution had “no emissions, safe operation, (and was) proliferation free."
“There is no long-lived radiation. Fission reactors’ stuff will be there forever, but with fusion materials, after 100 years then you are good,” he told Aviation Week, and that future predictions of advanced versions of the compact reactors could “eliminate radioactive waste completely”.
When decommissioned, the steel components of the compact fusion reactors could be disposed of via a “shallow burial in the desert, similar to medical waste today,” he said.
Fusion energy has been researched for decades but so far, a viable working device has yet to be developed; however, Lockheed believe that by keeping the projects small, they have come closer to perfecting the technology.
Team leader Dr Tom McGuire said: "Instead of something the size of a building, we have something the size of a large truck. "Small is the reason we can do this quickly. If something’s small, you can build up momentum; you can develop it fast. It doesn’t take five years to design it, it takes three months. We can design it, build it, test it, under a year."
In reality, a prototype version of the compact reactor is expected to be available within five years, though a decade from now McGuire believes that the devices could be powering warships, and in 20 years there was the potential to provide a virtually limitless source of clean energy across the globe.
The Lockheed project is not the only research ongoing in the quest to find safe, clean limitless energy sources. The concept of "cold fusion" is an even safer version of nuclear power, in which the reactions take place at almost room temperature. The idea has been refuted as impossible in scientific circles for decades, yet there has also been a recent breakthrough in this field of nuclear research.
Italian engineer, Andrea Rossi, has been working on the E-Cat project, a device that produces heat through a process called a Low Energy Nuclear Reaction (LENR). LENR, otherwise known as cold fusion, is a technique that attempts to generate energy via low temperature non-chemical reactions. LENR, therefore, is theoretically and even safer, less complex and less expensive process than any form of hot fusion.
Rossi’s claims that this method shows promise as a viable energy source have been received with nothing short of derision in many scientific circles, particularly as the concept is poorly understood. It is said to work by infusing heated hydrogen into nickel, transmuting it into copper and producing heat in the process, but machines have been covered during testing, and results have been notoriously fickle, being highly sensitive to laboratory conditions and purity of materials.
Yet validation for Rossi’s ideas may finally have arrived, as the efficacy of his E-Cat device has now been verified by a team of third party researchers, according to a new thorough and detailed 54 page report. The researchers, who comprised a team of serious academics from Italy and Stockholm, observed a small version of the E-Cat for 32 days, during which it produced a net energy output of 1.5 megawatt-hours. The scientists stated that the output was “far more than can be obtained from any known chemical sources in the small reactor volume,” and analysis of the spent fuel concluded that the energy could only have been achieved via a nuclear reaction. The results of the study were published in a paper entitled “Indication of anomalous heat energy production in a reactor device," though researchers admitted that they were still confounded by their conclusions as "it is of course very hard to comprehend how these fusion processes can take place in the fuel compound at low energies.”
It seems the race is now on to provide the world with the safest and most viable source of alternative energy. With global warming caused, in part, by the use of fossil fuels as energy sources, and with current nuclear alternatives posing significant safety risks, the solution cannot come too soon.