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How Lockheed Martin's Power Play Could Boost Fervor Over Fusion

Image: Plasma shot

Plasma glows inside EMC2 Fusion's Wiffle-Ball test device during a high-energy shot on Oct. 25, 2013. EMC2 Fusion

Lockheed Martin's project to create a compact fusion reactor could provide a boost for other ventures aiming to harness nuclear fusion energy on a small scale — or at least they hope so.

"I'm glad to see them pursuing high-pressure plasma, because it's the only logical way to have an economical fusion reactor," Jaeyoung Park, president and chief scientist at New Mexico-based EMC2 Fusion Development Corp., told NBC News on Thursday. "Life is lonely if you're the only one doing it."

EMC2 Fusion has been working on a concept similar to Lockheed Martin's for years, as a follow-up to decades' worth of research by physicist Robert Bussard. The company is just one of a myriad of ventures aiming to turn nuclear fusion, the reaction that powers the sun as well as hydrogen bombs, into a commercial power-generating technology.

Want Safer Nuclear Power? Fusion May Pave the Way 1:33

If fusion could be commercialized, it would offer a new kind of always-on power source that's cleaner than nuclear fission and fossil fuels, and potentially be cheaper than coal.

Some fusion research efforts are getting millions or even billions of dollars in government support — including the Z Machine at Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico; the $3.5 billion laser-blasting National Ignition Facility in California; and the international ITER experimental project in France, which has a price tag that estimates say could rise as high as $50 billion over the next decade.

Other ventures, such as EMC2 Fusion and Lockheed Martin's newly revealed T4 project, aim to commercialize fusion for far less, using far less orthodox technological approaches.

Fusion reactor on a truck?

As detailed by Aviation Week, Lockheed Martin's Skunk Works team is drawing upon a variety of magnetic confinement techniques to shrink the size of a reactor to 10 percent of, say, ITER's projected seven-story-high facility. Instead of taking up a city block's worth of area, such a reactor could theoretically fit on the back of a truck — or, more to the point, inside a U.S. Navy submarine.

Over the past few years, the Navy spent $12 million to support EMC2 Fusion's research — and now EMC2 Fusion, like Lockheed, is looking for support from investors and other partners to take their experiments to the next level.

Image: Skunk Works
Tom McGuire is the head of the compact fusion research team at Lockheed Martin's Skunk Works. Lockheed Martin

In EMC2 Fusion's case, that means finding roughly $30 million for a demonstration reactor that shows how its Polywell concept could scale up to a net energy gain, and eventually commercial-scale reactors.

"We are getting decent exposure," Park said in an email. "This has helped us to make progress in our fundraising. It is moving forward, and I am cautiously optimistic about the chance of getting funded for the next phase, though everything takes a lot longer than expected. It is certainly an exciting roller coaster ride for a scientist."

Another couple of months could tell the tale, Park said. And it doesn't hurt that the leader of Lockheed Martin's compact fusion research team, Tom McGuire, said his concept has some similarities to EMC2 Fusion's Polywell, which involves shooting positive ions into a powerful electromagnetic field.

"I am happy to see the core principle of the Polywell concept is being adopted by others for their efforts for economical fusion power," Park said.

'The race is on'

Park's not the only one: Lockheed Martin's news was also cheered on the Talk-Polywell discussion forum, where members delve into the nitty-gritty of unorthodox fusion physics. "The race is on to achieve major funding for this general approach," one commenter wrote.

Lockheed Martin is by far the biggest company to reveal its interest in creating compact fusion reactors, and the fact that it's looking for partners should add to the already-percolating interest in commercial fusion research. Amazon.com billionaire Jeff Bezos, for instance, is one of the investors in Canada-based General Fusion. Meanwhile, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen has invested in California-based Tri-Alpha Energy.

Other ventures such as Lawrenceville Plasma Physics are flying relatively under the radar but aiming for big breakthroughs in fusion physics.

Image: EMC2 Fusion lab
A view of EMC2 Fusion's lab space in San Diego shows the WB-8 prototype reactor on the left side and the Wiffle-Ball containment test device in the middle of the image, with EMC2 Fusion President Jaeyoung Park standing beside it. EMC2 Fusion

Helion Energy, a start-up that was spun off from a University of Washington fusion research project, is working on its own demonstration fusion reactor — and recently announced a $1.5 million venture capital infusion.

Lockheed Martin's McGuire said his team would build a prototype compact fusion reactor within five years, but Helion's schedule is even more ambitious: The company's CEO, David Kirtley, hopes to get to the break-even point — that is, a fusion reaction where the energy output exceeds the input — within three years.

In a recent email, Kirtley said Helion was making good progress toward that goal. "We have increased our demonstrated plasma temperatures to over 5 KeV [5,000 electron volts] and continue work on the engineering hardware of our next, break-even machine," he said.

So who'll win the commercial fusion race? Will anyone ever cross the break-even line and turn fusion into a cheap power source? Stay tuned ... at least it's good to know there's a race.