Skunk Works Nuclear Fusion

Charles Chase of Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works (the folks who designed the U-2 and SR-71 reconnaisance planes and the F-22 Raptor, among other aircraft) recently gave a talk suggesting his group’s work could lead to commercially available nuclear fusion reactors within 15 years.

Here are some quick thoughts:

He’s talking about deuterium-tritium fusion. Deuterium is a plentiful, easily enrichable isotope of hydrogen. Tritium is another isotope of hydrogen, but very uncommon and has a short half-life (hint, those two facts are related). To produce tritium, you either need a breeder reactor working with lithium-6, or a fission reactor using heavy water for cooling. Neither route is cheap. (Even if the Skunk Works’ fusion reactor is the breeder working with lithium-6, lithium is relatively rare and lithium-6 requires enrichment). Plus, regarding transportation, tritium has the same chemical and physical profile as hydrogen, i.e., it’s very flammable and can relatively easily leak out of containers. The radioactivity of tritium isn’t much of a risk (don’t breathe it and you’ll be fine), but in our litigious age, that risk still has to be mitigated. Still, guys with high school degrees drive tanker trucks of hydrocarbons around without any major problems, so tritium transport is solvable.

Take the 15 year time frame with a grain of salt. Fusion has been 20 years in the future since the 1950s. (I remember my youthful indignation in 1990 when a physicist at Los Alamos made a comment like that). I also remember Pons and Fleischmann, and even if you don’t, you’ve probably heard the term “cold fusion” used to dismiss something as a pseudotechnology. On top of that, as the Pournelle-Anderson law of big engineering goes, “Everything takes longer and costs more.” Given Lockheed Martin’s recent track record with the F-35, well, yep.

One striking thing about comments on the Youtube video (or at Walter Jon Williams’ site) is the large amount of conspiracy theorizing, that Big Oil (and/or Big Banking) will suppress commercially workable fusion. My Midwestern, middle-class upbringing makes me want to dismiss this as paranoia, but I’m a lot more cynical than I used to be. Cynical enough to see the backroom deals that would foil Big Oil and bring fusion to the market. Note that Charles Chase gave his talk at Solve for X, a forum sponsored by Google. A 100 mW power plant would be useful to a company with a massive server farm, such as, say, Google. And while Big Oil can pay for one congressman, senator, or senior bureaucrat’s hookers and cocaine, Google can call up another and say, “We noticed someone used your computer to contact a gay escort service. Sure would be a shame if that hit the WaPo or NY Times.” (And check out the money quote from this link, “The Chairman of Google’s girlfriend was being used as a back channel for Hillary Clinton“). If there’s a power struggle between Big Oil and Big Data, Big Data is already winning: consider, anti-fracking is a mainstream position, while being anti-Google puts one in tinfoil hat territory.

If it’s technically feasible, then it will happen. Imagine a fusion reactor in every small city on Earth that wants one, providing enough cheap electricity to give everyone who wants it a First World lifestyle. All without any carbon emissions or any need to handle fissile isotopes, if you’re worried about those things. It won’t be utopia, of course — no society involving human beings ever will be — but energy supplies won’t be one of its problems. Nor will drinking water (fusion powered desalinization plants at the seashore), overpopulation (wealthy societies have fewer children, because children are only an asset in labor-intensive agriculture, and are a liability in high-tech agriculture and city life), and a host of other issues that techno-pessimists hand-wring over.