Many people sent me this article, and it's worth looking at closely for what may be the real story here. Firstly, Lockheed's portable fusion reactor is not new news. In fact, I blogged about this little device some years ago, here: THE LOCKHEED MARTIN FUSION STORY, E-CAT, AND SOME HIGH OCTANE ....
Back then, I pointed out the basic resemblance of Lockheed's device with a much earlier patent of Philo Farnsworth, taken in 1964-1965, for IT&T, for a device about as big as a softball, and which, reportedly, was able to sustain a fusion reaction for about half a minute, an unbelievable accomplishment, especially for such a small device. Farnsworth's device, after some initial hoopla in the press, was shuffled right off the stage and was never heard from again. Later of course, Pons and Fleischmann would suffer a worse fate for their announcement of "cold fusion", being hounded out of the country, while quietly, Japan, France, and Germany substantially funded research in the area.
But there is something very intriguing in this newer version of the story, for now we're getting a glimpse not only of how this little reactor is supposed to work, but more importantly, what it might be for. Here's the story:
Assuming that the project here is not simply a bit of misdirection to get everyone else spending lots of money and investing lots of time in something that is a dead end, then one has to assume that the project that Lockheed has been investigating has at least been tested, and that the basic concept of its design actually works. What this suggests is that the award of the patent, which was only "pending" when I wrote the previous blog four years ago, has been done on the basis of some actual test results. As most people know who have filed patents for machinery, such patents usually include an amount of technical data concerning the performance of the machine being patented. With that in mind, read the following carefully:
Lockheed Martin has quietly obtained a patent associated with its design for a potentially revolutionary compact fusion reactor, or CFR. If this project has been progressing on schedule, the company could debut a prototype system that size of shipping container, but capable of powering a Nimitz-class aircraft carrier or 80,000 homes, sometime in the next year or so.
The patent, for a portion of the confinement system, or embodiment, is dated Feb. 15, 2018. The Maryland-headquartered defense contractor had filed a provisional claim on April 3, 2013 and a formal application nearly a year later. Our good friend Stephen Trimble, chief of Flightglobal's Americas Bureau, subsequently spotted it and Tweeted out its basic details. (Italicized emphasis added).
What this is suggesting is that one of the thornier issues for sustainable nuclear fusion reactors, the confinement of the nuclear plasma itself, has been successfully dealt with. But what's it for? The article concentrates on the usual "cheap clean energy" angle:
If the system works, it’s hard to underscore just how dramatically it could change not just the future of warfare, but the basic nature of human existence. Running on approximately 25 pounds of fuel – a mixture of hydrogen isotopes deuterium and tritium – Lockheed Martin estimated the notional reactor would be able to run for an entire year without stopping. The device would be able to generate a constant 100 megawatts of power during that period.
But then there's this from the project's director, Dr. Thomas McGuire:
“I studied this in graduate school [at MIT] where, under a NASA study, I was charged with how we could get to Mars quickly,” McGuire said back in 2014 in an interview with Aviation Week. “I started looking at all the ideas that had been published. I basically took those ideas and melded them into something new by taking the problems in one and trying to replace them with the benefits of others.” (Emphasis added)
And later on in the article, the Mars angle is plopped down in the middle of the "clean cheap energy" context:
According to the company website on the CFR, the reactor could be powerful enough to run an aircraft carrier, power a plane the size of a C-5 Galaxy airlifter, provide electricity to cities with anywhere from 50 to 100,000 people, and maybe even speed up a trip to Mars.
Stop and think about that: a two meter long and one meter wide fusion reactor capable of running for a year would certainly be compact enough to put on a rocket and put into space to power just about anything: orbital weapons platforms, interplanetary space ships, asteroid mining cargo ships, you name it. In fact, such a unit, if it turns out to be ultimately successful, would be virtually the perfect platform to power permanent manned outposts on the Moon or Mars. If it can power aircraft carriers, it can power electrical appliances, light cities, water and air filtration systems... all the essential needs for a permanent human outpost on other planets. Dr. McGuire, in other words, has told us what this device is really for...
...it's a crucial, necessary step in the technology tree to permanent human outposts and colonies on other planets. With that in mind, look at the timetable suggested in the article:
On the one hand, a corporation receiving a patent does not necessarily mean they are actively pursuing the technology that the document describes, either. In addition, since the media blitz in 2014, Skunk Works has said very little about this project outside of the plasma physics community. The U.S. government also reserves the right to classify patents it feels might be a threat to national security if they were public, so the fact that this one is not might also calls into question how mature the system might be in actuality.
Still, the that Skunk Works continued to pursue the patent process over the past four years would similarly seem to indicate that they are indeed pushing ahead with the program, at least to some degree. This storied division definitely does have an impressive pedigree when it comes to advanced research and development projects, too. They were also confident enough four years ago to give interviews and offer significant details about the basic reactor design, the projected timeline, and the overall program goals, suggesting that it was a serious endeavor.
Considering the five year timeline Dr. McGuire put out in 2014 for achieving a workable prototype, maybe we’re due for another big announcement from Lockheed Martin in the near future.
Indeed, getting a patent for a confinement system is a big step, and the five year goal is coming up. Add to this some publicly stated goals of landing humans on Mars by 2030, the robotic construction of habitats via 3D printing, and one gets the idea...
See you on the flip side...