Fusion power: goodbye fossil fuels?

“We would like to get to a prototype (of a nuclear fusion reactor) in five generations,” said Thomas McGuire, the director of the Revolutionary Technology division at Lockheed Martin’s famed Skunk Works. “If we can meet our plan of doing a design-build-test generation every year, that will put us at about five years, and we’ve already shown we can do that in the lab.”

“We would like to get to a prototype (of a nuclear fusion reactor) in five generations,” said Thomas McGuire, the director of the Revolutionary Technology division at Lockheed Martin’s famed Skunk Works.

“If we can meet our plan of doing a design-build-test generation every year, that will put us at about five years, and we’ve already shown we can do that in the lab.”

McGuire was talking to Aviation Week, the oldest and most widely read magazine covering defence industry, and he was promising a working nuclear fusion reactor that puts out more energy than it consumes in five years.

“It wouldn’t be at full power … but basically just showing that all the physics works,” he added — but he did predict a fully operational machine in another five years.

Lockheed Martin is not a fringe player hyping some technological fantasy in the hope of raising enough capital to build a prototype. It’s the biggest player in U.S. defence-related technology, and it has a reputation to protect. It would not have invited Aviation Week in last week unless it was pretty confident that the project will succeed.

So suppose there really is a full-scale prototype of a 100-megawatt nuclear fusion reactor, ready to go into volume production, in just 10 years. Nuclear fusion is clean energy — no radioactive waste, no risk of meltdown and, of course, no carbon dioxide emissions — so if it is competitive in cost, it could easily sweep the field.

Fusion power would not replace the “renewables” (wind, solar, and “bio” power), whose cost would probably fall fast enough to stay competitive.

But it would rapidly replace the fossil fuels, mainly coal and gas, that are used to generate “base load” power — power that is always available even if the sun is down and the wind drops — especially because the compact reactors would easily plug into the existing gas turbine power infrastructure.

Lockheed Martin’s T4 project reduces the size of the reactor tenfold for the same output, so nuclear fusion could also replace oil directly in a great many uses, like powering large ships. Its abundant, cheap electricity from a compact source could also eventually drive oil out of most other transportation uses, including automobiles and aircraft. Lockheed Martin talks about meeting global base load energy demand with fusion power by 2050.

Lockheed Martin is not alone in the field. EMC2 Fusion Development Corp. is working on a similar concept in New Mexico, and other significant players in the field include Helion Energy in Washington state, Canadian-based General Fusion, and Tri-Alpha Energy in California.

After half a century of desultory tinkering with fusion power, this is an idea whose time has come. Assuming that it really happens, what would that do to the world?

For a start, it would kill off the coal industry entirely. Gas would be the next to go, but the demand for oil (and therefore its price) would also go into a long-term decline.

The existing nuclear power plants, which depend upon fission for their energy, would be replaced with fusion plants on both cost and safety grounds.

The geopolitical impacts would also be very large, as major countries that live on oil exports see their cash flow dry up.

Russia, Venezuela, Nigeria and other countries whose precarious prosperity and stability depend on large oil exports might face revolution or civil war when their income collapsed. So might Mexico, Indonesia, Iran and perhaps some Arab countries.

On the other hand, countries that currently spend a lot of their income on energy imports would suddenly find themselves much richer. (The United States leads the pack in this regard.)

But above all, the threat of runaway global warming would go away.

It’s already too late to avoid some very large impacts, because there is a great deal of carbon dioxide in the air that has not yet produced its full warming effect, and there are a lot more emissions to come even if fossil fuels are successfully phased out in a matter of decades.

If fusion power became available soon enough, however, we would never exceed two degrees C higher average global temperature and trigger a global catastrophe.

So you can fret all you want about terrorism and the other minor complaints of our times, but this is major-league Good News.

And if you’re not happy with those predictions about “hot” fusion power, here’s something else to cheer you up.

Cold fusion power, which depends on low-energy nuclear reactions (LENR), was dismissed with much ridicule when it was first mooted in 1989.

Now it’s back on the table, and highly reputable organizations like the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) are taking it seriously.

As Dennis Bushnell, chief scientist at NASA’s Langley Research Center, said in an interview last year, “Several labs have blown up studying LENR and windows have melted. … When the conditions are ‘right,’ prodigious amounts of energy can be produced and released.”

The Age of Wonders is not past.

Gwynne Dyer is a freelance Canadian journalist living in London.

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