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Scientists Are Bashing Lockheed Martin's Nuclear Fusion 'Breakthrough'

Nuclear fusionPrinceton Plasma Physics LaboratoryTokamak Fusion Test Reactor at PPPL

Researchers at Lockheed Martin Corporation’s Skunk Works, announced on Oct. 15 their ongoing work on a new nuclear fusion technology that could bring about functional, operational nuclear reactors in the next 10 years.

But most scientists and science communicators we talked to are sceptical of the claim.

“The nuclear engineering clearly fails to be cost effective,” Tom Jarboe told Business Insider in an email. Jarboe is a professor of aeronautics and astronautics, an adjunct professor in physics, and a researcher with the University of Washington’s nuclear fusion experiment.

The premise behind Lockheed’s 10-year-plan is the smaller size of their device. The scientists are designing an improved version of a compact fusion reactor (CFR). The CFR generates power from nuclear fusion by extracting energy through the extremely hot plasma contained inside it.

The plasma consists of hydrogen atoms that, when heated to billions of degrees, fuse together. When this happens they release energy, which the CFR then extracts and can eventually transfer into electricity.

Traditional containment vessels for these plasmas are called tokamaks that look like hollowed-out doughnuts and are the size of an average apartment. Lockheed claims that their new CFR can generate 10 times more power than a tokamak in a space that could fit on the back of a large truck, according to Aviation Week. But Jarboe disagrees.

“This design has two doughnuts and a shell so it will be more than four times as bad as a tokamak,” Jarboe stated, adding that, “Our concept [at the University of Washington] has no coils surrounded by plasma and solves the problem.”

Although Lockheed Martin issued a press release stating that they have several pending patents for their approach, they have yet to publish any scientific papers on this latest work.

“It’s really great that Lockheed has taken an interest in this important challenge of providing carbon-free energy to the world,” Michael Zarnstorff, deputy director for research at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, told Business Insider in an email. “We haven’t seen any results from the Lockheed experiments but the design is an interesting concept and it looks like they are at a very early stage of exploring this configuration.”

While Zarnstorff remains optimistic, others are not ready to believe the hype.

Swadesh M. Mahajan, a thermonuclear plasma physicist at the University of Texas, told Mother Jones reporter James West that there were many reasons to be sceptical of the announcement. Specifically, “we know of no materials that would be able to handle anywhere near that amount of heat,” for a device as small as Lockheed is proposing.

As of now, Lockheed’s results are purely theoretical so it’s hard to know whether they will work in reality, Rose Reed, an assistant professor of physics at Wayne State University and researcher at the Large Hadron Collider, told Mother Jones.

When asked if the concept of Lockheed’s new design is in any way unique or novel, Zarnstorff told Business Insider that it was too early to tell.

While headlines touted Lockheed’s results as a “breakthrough” that could “change the world forever,” the corporation used no such language in their press release. However, it appears that we will have to wait at least a little while longer before any reactor Lockheed envisions enters the market.

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