back to article Scientists skeptical of Lockheed Martin's truck-sized fusion reactor breakthrough boast

Lockheed Martin has caused quite a stir with its announcement that it will ship fusion reactors the size of a truck within the next decade. Lockheed Martin's compact fusion reactor "Our compact fusion concept combines several alternative magnetic confinement approaches, taking the best parts of each, and offers a 90 percent …

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  1. corestore

    To the skeptics...

    To the sceptics, consider where this is coming from. This is the **Lockheed Martin Skunk Works**. They don't DO hype. They scarcely do publicity. If you don't understand who they are, and the significance of a public statement from them, do some research! If it was anyone else, I'd have very considerable reservation - but these guys have credibility. This ain't cold fusion.

    1. DougS Silver badge

      Re: To the skeptics...

      They also haven't ever asked for outside investment either. I thought that was really weird when I read it, and seems weirder the more I think about it.

      1. JLV Silver badge

        Re: To the skeptics...

        Yeah, I agree with the healthy dose of skepticism.

        But maybe the investment is to spread the risk? Considering how many $B are going into the ITER fusion project, even a large corporate parent might balk at taking a fraction of that type of risk solo.

        And, if they did strike gold, I wouldn't be surprised if the public and politicians claimed that the tech was too beneficial to belong to any one corporation and belonged to humanity as a whole. Spreading the ownership pie might help there too.

        Still, I remain quite skeptical of the whole thing.

      2. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: To the skeptics...

        They do ask for outside investment, usually it is done by saying to the Euro leaders (and other morons) "the Russians for sure are coming again, please send us *all* your money"

    2. John Smith 19 Gold badge
      Unhappy

      Re: To the skeptics...

      "To the sceptics, consider where this is coming from. This is the **Lockheed Martin Skunk Works**. They don't DO hype."

      Wrong.

      They didn't do hype.

      Back in the days when R&D labs were cost centres, and not expected to be profit centres.

      Read up on SR 72

    3. Martin Taylor 1

      Re: To the skeptics...

      I would find a public statement from e.g. the Culham laboratory in the UK to be considerably more significant.

    4. Psyx

      Re: To the skeptics...

      "To the sceptics, consider where this is coming from. This is the **Lockheed Martin Skunk Works**. They don't DO hype."

      No, but they do deception.

      1. Adam 1 Silver badge

        Re: To the skeptics...

        >No, but they do deception.

        True, but fusion power 10 years away isn't exactly an unusual claim.

        1. DiViDeD Silver badge

          Re: To the skeptics...

          "fusion power 10 years away isn't exactly an unusual claim."

          True enough. It's been 10 years away for at least 50 years already.

        2. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: To the skeptics...

          It will always be 10 years away...

    5. ZSn

      Re: To the skeptics...

      The main problem is the startling lack of detail they provide - however that diagram has one major flaw. The end of the 'bottle' are, as far as I can see, magnetic mirrors. They suffer from the fact that high energy partiicles escape from them cooling the overall plasma and drasticallyt reducing the temperature. As a technology it was obsolete thirty years ago. The neutral beam injetors, well they are quite inefficient and I'm not sure how far it takes to stop the beam (depends on the density of the plasma - again not stated) but that superficially looks too short.

      Thermonucear fusion is hard to do, but the required parameters have been around for a *long* time. A Tokomak at least as big as DEMO. It takes time and money and in the 1990s petrol was too cheap and that killed the last big international attempt (particularly the Americans - they did their best to kill it off).

      1. MacroRodent Silver badge

        Re: To the skeptics...

        "and that killed the last big international attempt"

        Uh, isn't the ITER project still going on? Pretty big, and international.

        1. ZSn

          Re: To the skeptics...

          Ok, not the current one, the previous one that was meant to start in the mid 1990s, twenty years wasted with the Americans playing around with intertial confinement.

          For those not experienced with American big research projects, they usually have a dual use (or are pitched as such to the government) the current confinement system is not going to work, and they seem to be steering it to materials work (such as refining models of the states of matter in highly compressed plasma - guess what for).

      2. ZSn

        Re: To the skeptics...

        Interesting to see the upvotes and downvotes here. Where people starting trying to pick the physics apart there are lots of downvotes, where fatuous comments on how clever skunkworks are, or how electricity will be too cheap to meter/40 years etc lots of upvotes. My, my, tin-foil hats all around...

    6. JeffyPoooh Silver badge
      Pint

      Physics 101

      100 Megawatts emitted as *heat* from a medium-sized thing. Calculate temperatures involved *at the interface* where the heat is extracted.

      Yes, we know that the plasma is bloody hot; that's not the point. What temperature is required to shove 100MW though a given surface area, out where the power meets the plumbing?

      By way of clarifying your thoughts, imagine 100MW being emitted as *heat* from an object with a volume of 1cc. Calculate temperature.

      Even if the physics of the nuclear reactor is all good, they might well run into basic plumbing problems in moving that much power out of that small an object. That said, perhaps the world could be changed in 10MW steps instead of 100MW steps.

      1. Rustident Spaceniak

        Re: Physics 101

        100MW is a lot, but these guys are used to dealing with jet engines, which tend to generate that sort of power. Granted, most of that is produced as kinetic energy, but it does start as heat; so if they can produce the power in the first place, I'm reasonably confident they'll find a way to use it.

        Then again, those containment walls are frightfully thick, so to get much power through, they'd probably have to be full of cooling channels. Not sure what that'll do to the design, but I'm fairly confident the Lockheed guys have given it some thought. I've only been thinking about it for as many minutes as they have years, after all.

        1. Eddy Ito Silver badge

          Re: Physics 101

          The walls have to be thick if they are going to absorb the ~14.1 MeV of kinetic energy from the neutons as that indicates they are stepping out rather vigorously. Also consider that, assuming they capture the full 17.6 MeV of each reaction, the 10 second run is going to use a little less than 3 mg of fuel which means that if it could run continuously it would use less than a gram per hour while putting out 100 MW. If it works, and I really hope it does, the phrase "this changes everything" won't be that much of an overstatement.

        2. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Physics 101

          You can get an industrial Trent generator setup from Siemens but this seems to top out at somewhere around 83MW and you would need a really big truck to fit it in ....

          power generation package (engine) weighs 208 tonnes and mechanical drive weighs 105 tonnes. Length around 30m and height around 18m .....

      2. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Physics 101

        "By way of clarifying your thoughts, imagine 100MW being emitted as *heat* from an object with a volume of 1cc. Calculate temperature."

        What's its surface area ?

        Thermal conductivity ?

        Is it in a vacuum, still air, gale , cold water or liquid sodium ?

        Unless you can provide those details we can't calculate its temperature !

        BTW why volume and why just 1cc

        1. JeffyPoooh Silver badge
          Pint

          Re: Physics 101

          "What's its surface area ?"

          You may assume the 1 cc object is made from carbonized coconut, and has a surface area that is vast (Wales sized) on the microscopic scale, if you think it'll help. The area at the macro scale is on the order of 6 cm^2 (if we assume a cube for simplicity).

          "Thermal conductivity ?"

          Feel free to browse the Periodic Table. Help yourself.

          "...in a vacuum ... or liquid sodium ?"

          Help yourself. Anything you want. Your goal it bring the temperature down to, heck, 4 digits would be a major accomplishment.

          The point of the 1 cc Thought Experiment is to assist those with poor conceptualizing skills to catch-on to the fact that moving power as heat implies temperature. 100MW is a lot of power. Size matters. It cannot be made arbitrarily small with practical materials.

          Back to the LM example, at some point in the future the Steam Turbine folks are going to knock on the reactor room door, with their 1m diameter 100MW class steam pipe in tow, and everyone will be left wondering where they're supposed to connect the 1m diameter pipe to the wee cute little 100MW reactor.

          I can sense some problems with the plumbing. It's because I tend to pay attention to numbers, such as (for example) 100,000,000 joule per second.

          1. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward

            Re: Physics 101

            "ou may assume the 1 cc object is made from carbonized coconut, and has a surface area that is vast (Wales sized) on the microscopic scale, if you think it'll help"

            I know you're trying to be helpful but the surface area matters as that is what the heat has to be conducted through. That's why a sphere is more efficient to heat than a cube, thats why people put fins on a heatsink, The conductivity matters for the same reason (copper is better than asbestos). The final heat sink and its properties matter for the same reason.

            Choosing 1cc object was also fairly unhelpful as the device is supposed to be the size of a jet engine. If you are going to model at least try and get the closest starting point.

            For example : a fast breeder reactor has a core ~~ 1 m^3 and needs liquid metal cooling and generates ~ the power in question.

            1. JeffyPoooh Silver badge
              Pint

              Re: Physics 101

              AC: "fast breeder reactor has a core ~~ 1 m^3 ... ~ the power in question."

              A bit disingenuous.

              1) You're comparing FB core to LM entire reactor vessel (the fusion core being a plasma).

              2) You've ignored the difference in the geometry of a pressure vessel (surface area vice flow thru).

              3) You've inserted more than the allowed number of "~" into your argument.

              Anyway, the point has been made. How do you shove 100MW of heat through the walls of a vessel. 100MW from a little box becomes a major plumbing problem. Perhaps liquid metal cooling is the way forward. Hopefully the liquid metal in question is not their vessel walls having melted. I trust they'll be thinking of this (they're clever), but I suspect that the optimum solution might settle down to a bit less than the "100MW on the back of a truck" headline.

      3. tengage

        Re: Physics 101

        Molten ceramic and a metric shit-ton of water? - http://www.google.com/patents/US5651925. I have to agree though; aside from just the heat transfer what is the shelf-life of ANY material heated to those temperatures...single-use?

      4. This post has been deleted by its author

      5. Peter Fairbrother 1

        Re: Physics 101

        Just to put some rough numbers on it, the main cylindrical part of the device seems to be about 2 meters in diameter and 5 meters long; which would fit into a shipping container with a bit of space for other systems. That's a surface area of about 35 square meters, and a heat flux density of about 2.8 MW per square meter.

        Sunlight is about 1 kw/m^2 at the equator at noon, so that's 2,800 times more power per unit area than sunlight. It is equivalent to a black body radiative temperature of about 2,400C, or 4,300F, about as hot as the filament in an old-fashioned light bulb.

        But the reactor casing doesn't need to be that hot, indeed it can be quite cool.

        The highest steady-state fluid-cooling heat flux density I know of in engineering occurs in regeneratively cooled rocket engines, which typically cool at about 10-20 MW/m^2, though there are examples going up to about 160 MW/m^2 - many times more than needed here.

        So removing 100MW of heat from the device is not that great a problem, and certainly not an insoluble one.

        What you then do with that heat, well that's not going to fit into a shipping container ... but just the reactor might, indeed would, if it works as advertised.

    7. Wzrd1

      Re: To the skeptics...

      Lockheed-Martin hasn't asked for external finances since the Almighty was young.

      That is already a warning.

      A second warning is their diagram, where anything that does not fuse ends up slamming into the containment vessel.

      A third warning was no mention of mitigation neutron embrittlement.

      Finally, they're talking magic. Useful energy from something the size of a jet engine. OK, nice source, the collateral equipment necessary to make the damned thing work *and* cool and make work is a hell of a lot bigger.

      Now, add in the fact that deuterium isn't cheap by far and tritium is royally expensive...

      Finally, despite what our intrepid author has said, fusion is trivial to achieve. People all over this planet, even on Old Blighty have produced fusion devices. Neutron generators are available for sale, the more hazardous requiring various regulatory hurdles to overcome. The overwhelming majority of those are fusion units. Every hydrogen bomb on the planet and most fission bombs today have a neutron source that is a fusion unit.

      But, for those, energy input is much higher than the output.

      The former examples are curiosities, the latter, neutron sources.

      Sorry folks, I call bullshit.

      If asked to invest, I'd invest in cold fusion. Just for the comedic results.*

      *I have many other objections, some are based upon things covered under various NDA's, some of which could put me in prison. So, no. I'll not discuss some other objections. Anyone who knows collegiate physics will know where I'm thinking, mostly.

      1. MarkkuJ

        Re: To the skeptics...

        One thing that strikes my nerve is the closeness of this to the Rossi's E-Cat "verification" annoucement. Could this be the hoax and they are trying to keep Rossi from getting funding.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: To the skeptics...

          "Could this be the hoax and they are trying to keep Rossi from getting funding."

          I wouldn't worry too much about that, Rossi's funding problems have more to do with the fact that the institutions issuing grants have realized he's a con artist (which admittedly should have been evident from the start since LENR is just rebranded cold fusion).

  2. Howard Hanek Bronze badge

    Is it possible that Lockheed isn't divulging details because, (cough) they are IN BUSINESS to make money? Just a thought but, call me crazy, they expect to sell these things faster than iPhones and for a LOT more money.

    1. DougS Silver badge

      If they're in business to raise money, why are they looking for outside investment for this? If Apple developed a revolutionary new device that would rival the iPhone in sales, would you expect them to ask for investors and share the profit with them, or fund it themselves and keep 100% of the profit?

      1. Tom 13

        Re: why are they looking for outside investment for this?

        There's a great deal of detail missing from the article. If the new production line would cost $10bn to ramp up, even $2.9bn/yr in profits isn't enough to fund it. Even if it pretty much guarantees $6bn/yr after the line is up and running. So you look for investors.

        The catch on that is that there is a great deal of detail missing from the article. So they could be selling a perpetual motion machine under another name.

        1. ian 22

          Re: why are they looking for outside investment for this?

          But can I use it to make bacon sarnies?

    2. Psyx

      If they're in business to make money and have not only solved the world's energy crisis, but done it in a transportable form, then why are they publicly asking for a handout?

    3. fajensen Silver badge

      Maybe, Just Maybe - Lockheed is a bit slow on the uptake like most corporates are and they are now IN BUSINESS to TAKE money, like, pretty much everyone did all the way through the 'naughties?

      The confinement system they propose is simply not going to work in steady state* - unless, perhaps, they can somehow manage to compress the plasma magnetically to a density *much higher* than seen before and then hit it with neutral beams in the right moment and spot.

      If they miss, the 16-20 MW or so of neutral beams will make a fine dent in the vacuum chamber. Even if they don't miss, neutral beams are terribly inefficent; one wonder why they do not simply shoot charged beams through the magnetic axis of the thing - the ends will be pretty "leaky" anyway to a high-energy beam. (The power supplies, vacuum systems, bending magnets and cooling pipes for the neutral beams will be a building in itself; I would say 30 x 50 x 10 meter).

      This confinement system is not a new invention. Many, Many people have attempted this.

      We don't have "abominations" like ITER, JET and Wendelstein because some researchers made a bet on who could make the most complicated machine with the biggest budget overrun. We have them because all "the easy" ways did not work with the physics involved.

      *) Charged particles are going to spiral around the magnetic field lines, then get "reflected" at the ends if the field is strong enough; but all this bending of the particle paths mean lots of Synchrotron radiation and the plasma density increases "Bremsstrahlung" - so the steady- state losses will be huge and they have to pulse the machine.

  3. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Beware

    Undocumented magic boxes...however large.

    1. Mark 85 Silver badge

      Re: Beware

      Add to that: Investors wanted. Cash only. There's more to that part then meets they eye. Spin-off? Too much investment for Lockheed to spend? Maybe a spin-off as they feel they make enough money from military and space products?

      1. Pascal Monett Silver badge

        When was the last time a billionaire declared that he had enough billions ?

        1. Nick L

          Didn't Mr Gates do just that and start giving his billions away?

          1. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward

            Nah - Bill Gates wanted to beat Ted Turner :)

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Beware

      Especially if they use 'neutral beams'.

      1. Michael Wojcik Silver badge
        Joke

        Re: Beware

        Especially if they use 'neutral beams'.

        Yeah, that's a red flag too. When there's a problem, how will the chief engineer reverse the polarity?

  4. Dr Scrum Master
    Mushroom

    10 years

    20 years ago nuclear fusion was 10 years away.

    10 years ago nuclear fusion was 10 years away.

    This year nuclear fusion is 10 years away.

    10 years from now?

    1. Franklin

      Re: 10 years

      Despite the naysayers, fusion power has made considerable progress. It hasn't progressed as fast as we would like, but sometimes new technology works that way.

      For example, Lawrence Livermore and MIT have both produced fusion reactions that net more energy output than energy input. They don't do it for long, but they do do it, which shows it is possible.

      I for one would like to see more research put into fusion power. If and when it can be made to work, it's a civilization-wide game-changer. A lot of political, social, economic, and resource problems turn out to be power problems, when you have copious amounts of cheap power. (For instance, much of the developing world, and more recently the developed world, struggles with water shortages; cheap and plentiful power make desalination easy.)

      It pains me that we as a species spend more money on spectator sports every year than we do on something that can profoundly change human civilization for the better.

      1. ToddR

        Re: 10 years

        Sounds like the beginnings of a Bob Dylan song

      2. Anomalous Cowshed

        Re: 10 years

        I'm not sure that everyone having access to their own private 100 Mw reactor in their 1-bed flat or in their backyard would be beneficial for humanity. This kind of thing needs to be thought over a little. What impact would near limitless energy have on our lives and surroundings? It might change everything, and we might not want everything to change, not so fast anyway. Maybe it's not such a bad thing that the technology is taking a long time to develop, Lockheed or no Lockheed.

        1. Robert Helpmann?? Silver badge
          Childcatcher

          Re: 10 years

          It might change everything...

          As recently alluded to here on El Reg concerning artificial lighting, I suspect that people will use whatever their current energy budget would buy at the new price point. As a race, we tend to take incremental steps in the development of new tech, but we are really good at finding ways to use resources as fast as they become available.

        2. John Brown (no body) Silver badge
          Alien

          Re: 10 years

          "It might change everything"

          First, most of the oil companies go bust (a few will survive. We use crude oil for a lot more than "just" fuel). Next,the solar/wind companies go bust. Everyone in the electric car supply chain make out like bandits. The financial markets are in upheaval as everyone tries to sell fossil fuel shares and buy anything else. I suspect an initial financial crash, worldwide, which will take a few years to recover from.

          The biggest problem is that all the above would happen more or less overnight while the fabled cheap fusion is only just starting to come off the production line.

          I reckon all the naysayers are wrong. Everyone knows that Lockheed Martin, the Skunkworks in particular, has links to Area 51. :-)

          1. fearnothing

            Re: 10 years

            Alternative theory: the big oil companies see which way the wind is blowing and have a bidding war over the fusion startups. I think it's unlikely they will just fall over no matter how much that would be emotionally satisfying for us not-obscenely-rich people.

            1. auburnman

              Re: 10 years

              I don't think Big Oil could afford a bidding war over the fusion startups; a lot of their value is tied up in the company's core business being viable. If fusion genuinely becomes a realistic thing Oil companies will go from multinational money machines to debt laden liabilities sitting on obsolete kit they paid billions for in a very short span of time.

        3. fajensen Silver badge

          Re: 10 years

          If it breaks the money supply to the Saudi terrorist regime - I want the change!

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