Fusion at Last? Not So Fast

One of the easiest scams to pull off in the energy world these days is to get a breathless story planted in the media about a laboratory “breakthrough” on energy from some advanced or unconventional source, like banana peels (when you aren’t smoking them) or unicorn flop sweat. Often these technologies are real, but the “journalists” never think to ask two basic questions: how much does it cost compared to existing energy sources, and can it be scaled up? Usually the answers to these questions is “a LOT,” and No, it can’t be realistically scaled up to our needs.  That’s why we usually never hear another thing about these nifty “breakthroughs.”

That’s why I take all such stories with a big grain of molten salt recycled from an advanced nuclear reactor, and especially when it comes to fusion power. I’ve toured the Princeton Plasma Energy Lab, and also the Max Planck Laboratory which is trying to develop fusion power in Munich, Germany. In both cases the scientists and engineers working there were clear-eyed that feasible fusion power is still a very long way off—maybe 2040 if major technological challenges can be overcome. But we still see a lot of chirpy news stories that fusion power is just 10 years away! Fusion has been 10 years away for the last 40 years.

But I sat up and took notice last week when Lockheed-Martin said they have made a breakthrough in a fusion energy project that could be rolled out commercially in a decade. Lockheed-Martin is no university lab needing to get a good PR plug, so it would seem to be more serious:

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Lockheed Martin Corp said on Wednesday it had made a technological breakthrough in developing a power source based on nuclear fusion, and the first reactors, small enough to fit on the back of a truck, could be ready for use in a decade.

Tom McGuire, who heads the project, said he and a small team had been working on fusion energy at Lockheed’s secretive Skunk Works for about four years, but were now going public to find potential partners in industry and government for their work.

Initial work demonstrated the feasibility of building a 100-megawatt reactor measuring seven feet by 10 feet, which could fit on the back of a large truck, and is about 10 times smaller than current reactors, McGuire told reporters.

In a statement, the company, the Pentagon’s largest supplier, said it would build and test a compact fusion reactor in less than a year, and build a prototype in five years.

Once again, nothing here on the cost of the prospective technology.  I’ll start to believe it if the Pentagon orders a couple of early reactors for a major military facility somewhere here in the U.S.  Before anyone gets carried away, Nature magazine throws some suitable skepticism on this story:

Although nearly everybody is pleased to see an industrial giant such as Lockheed Martin jump into the fusion fray, academics remain sceptical. Lockheed has yet to release any data from its initial experiments. And without more details, nobody can work out how this design differs from predecessors that have been tried and abandoned in decades past.

“It’s hard to tell the man on the street anything from a scientific point of view,” says Stewart Prager, director of the Department of Energy’s Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory in New Jersey. “It’s not clear what their science claims are.”

Here’s Lockheed’s four-minute video about their project; it doesn’t really explain in any detail why we should think this will work, but it sure looks cool. As Michael Ledeen and Glenn Reynolds like to say, faster please.