Lockheed working on truck-size fusion reactor

Lockheed Martin Corp.’s secretive Skunk Works unit, which designed the U-2 spy plane and F-117 stealth fighter jet, is developing a reactor to harness nuclear fusion, the process that powers the sun.

The reactor would be small enough to fit in a truck and generate enough energy to light 80,000 homes, the Bethesda-based company said Wednesday. The reactor would burn less than 20 kilograms of fuel in a year, producing waste that’s “orders of magnitudes less” than the ash and sludge spewed from coal plants.

Lockheed is building on 60 years of research into fusion, a technology that promises to release more energy than current commercial units using nuclear fission, without the risk of Fukushima-style meltdowns. The technology could be deployed within a decade and would be smaller and easier to make than competing concepts, Lockheed said in a statement.

“Our compact fusion concept combines several alternative magnetic confinement approaches, taking the best parts of each, and offers a 90 percent size reduction over previous concepts,” Tom McGuire, compact fusion lead for the Skunk Works’ Revolutionary Technology Programs, said in the statement.

If the concept proves successful, Lockheed’s technology could provide a safe, efficient new source of energy for ships as well as utility companies seeking alternative sources of power to coal and gas, said Paul Patterson, a New York-based analyst with Glenrock Associates LLC.

The success of Lockheed’s reactor ultimately “depends on the cost,” Patterson said in a phone interview. “This is something to look at 10 years from now. Right now, it’s at such an early stage, it’s hard to get too excited about the implications.”

Lockheed, which holds several patents for the compact fusion reactor, said it could design, build and test the first reactor in less than a year. The Skunk Works team expects to produce a prototype within five years, after completing several design-build-test cycles, the company said.

International partners from the European Union, China, Russia and the U.S. are also building the largest fusion reactor in history in Cadarache, France, to help spur commercialization of the technology.

The project, known as ITER, the Latin word for “the way,” aims to lead to a demonstration fusion power plant by producing 500 megawatts of power from an input of 50 megawatts, according to ITER’s website.

Unlike the large fission reactors used to generate electricity, fusion reactors wouldn’t produce tons of nuclear waste that’s radioactive for thousands of years, since the fuel consumed is helium, a non-radioactive gas.

The radioactive fuel assemblies in the core of fission reactors create energy by splitting atomic nuclei in a chain reaction, while fusion doesn’t involve a chain reaction, according to the ITER website. Only a few grams of tritium, the radioactive fuel component, are used at a time in the reaction chamber.

Fusion reactors wouldn’t be vulnerable to the triple meltdown that occurred after a tsunami hit Japan’s Fukushima nuclear station in 2011. Fusion reactions cannot be maintained spontaneously and any disturbance stops the reaction, according to ITER.

Fusion reactors, based on the science of plasma physics, have been far more difficult to develop since cutting-edge technologies like superconductivity, high vacuum and cryogenics must be incorporated into a single device, according to the website.