Lockheed Claims Nuclear Fusion Breakthrough If this is true, we are on the verge of an energy revolution

WASHINGTON – I have observed in previous pieces that our long season of economic stagnation here in America (and beyond) is in part due to a lack of significant technological innovation. We badly need “something new” , real game changers that will cause major qualitative advances, opening up growth opportunities in brand new economic sectors. Indeed, beyond fast changing ICT, there is very little out there that can be called “new”.

Nuclear fusion?

Well, here is a ray of hope. Reuters reports that US defense and electronics giant Lockheed Martin may be on the verge of something really sensational. Its celebrated Skunk Works, (Advanced Development Programs), research facilities may have resolved the up to now intractable technological problems related to controlled nuclear fusion.

Through Tom McGuire, the scientist in charge of the nuclear fusion efforts, the company decided to go public about its development of a “compact fusion reactor”, (CFR), with the hope of identifying partners that could work with Lockheed to speed up the process.

And here is the news. Based on its work to date, Lockheed claims that economically and commercially viable nuclear fusion will be possible in about 10 years from now.

An energy revolution

If this is true, this means that we are on the verge of an energy revolution comparable to the invention of the light bulb.

Lockheed claims that soon enough it will be able to build a compact 100-megawatt reactor that could fit on the back of a large truck. This “compact fusion reactor” would be a power plant about 10 times smaller than other prototypes being worked on elsewhere. According to McGuire, small size is a huge advantage for design, manufacturing and deployment.

Plenty of power

Commercially viable nuclear fusion, if indeed feasible, would be a really a big deal. It amounts to reproducing in a safe, controlled environment what happens in the sun. It means the ability to release enormous amounts of energy, with no dangerous waste or other byproducts, (this is the case with nuclear energy produced by conventional nuclear reactors). Nuclear fusion produces four times the energy that is generated by conventional nuclear fission reactors.

Energy for development

If commercially viable nuclear fusion became a reality, this would mean affordable electricity for everyone. This would result in an amazing transformation of our entire energy universe and a boost to most economic activities.

It would also mean access to reliable power for the hundreds of millions of people in Africa, India and other countries who never had any electricity, and who are therefore condemned to a life of poverty and under development. Just one of these compact reactors could provide enough electricity for at least 80,000 people.

Replacing old power plants

In the Western world these compact power plants would replace large coal-fired, oil-fired or gas-fired plants that deliver electricity to consumers via a complex, expensive and fragile network of transformers, sub-stations and thousands of miles of old and new power lines.

Imagine instead a new world in which all or most power is provided locally by a series of compact nuclear fusion reactors. This would mean getting all the energy you need without the problems related to building large-scale plants, while maintaining a nationwide power distribution grid. Imagine that: no more fossil fuels, no harmful emissions, easy maintenance.

Development for Africa

In Africa and elsewhere this could mean a gigantic leap from endless poverty to getting a real chance to join modernity. Most of Africa has little or no electricity. No electricity means no manufacturing facilities, and a serious constraint on all modern economic activities.

Most African cities are underserved. Power outages are frequent. But in the rural areas it is far worse. Usually there is no electricity –none at all. No power means no real economy, only subsistence farming. In the villages, the only sources of heat or light are expensive and difficult to obtain devices, like kerosene lamps, and burning wood for cooking.

A different world?

If and when electricity generated by nuclear fusion will arrive in an African village on the back of a truck, it will really be the beginning of a new era.

As William Pentland put in a Forbes piece: “If it works, the world will be in a different place”. Indeed, it will be.

Let’s hope it works.



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