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Nuclear fusion has been described as the 'holy grail' of energy, a source of power that could solve the world's impending fuel crisis.

Now we may be a step closer to achieving it after Lockheed Martin announced a 'breakthrough' in developing a power source based on the technology.

The Maryland-based company said the first reactors, small enough to fit on the back of a truck, could be ready for use in a decade.

Nuclear fission breaks a single atom into two, while nuclear fusion combines two atoms into one. The latter process creates three to four times as much energy as fission. 

Tom McGuire, who heads the project, said he and a small team had been working on fusion energy at Lockheed's secretive Skunk Works for about four years,

This is about 10 times smaller than current reactors, Mr McGuire told reporters at a recent press conference.

Fusion works by using two kinds of hydrogen atoms — deuterium and tritium — and injecting that gas into a containment vessel.

Scientist then add energy that removes the electrons from their host atoms, forming what is described as an ion plasma. 

The key to Lockheed's system is their tube-like design, which allows them to get around one of the limitations of traditional fusion reactor designs, that are limited by the amount plasma they can hold.

Lockheed has found a way to constrain the plasma, using what is called a compact fusion reactor (CFR) with a specifically shaped magnetic field inside.

When the plasma tries to expand the magnetic field fights back to contain it. In effect, this means the plasma works to contain itself.

The company, the Pentagon's largest supplier, said it would build and test a compact fusion reactor in less than a year, and build a prototype in five years.

In recent years, Lockheed has become increasingly involved in a variety of alternate energy projects, including several ocean energy projects, as it looks to offset a decline in U.S. and European military spending.

Lockheed's work on fusion energy could help in developing new power sources amid increasing global conflicts over energy, and as projections show there will be a 40 per cent to 50 per cent increase in energy use over the next generation, Mr McGuire said.

If it proves feasible, Lockheed's work would mark a key breakthrough in a field that scientists have long eyed as promising, but which has not yet yielded viable power systems. 

The effort seeks to harness the energy released during nuclear fusion, when atoms combine into more stable forms.

'We can make a big difference on the energy front,' Mr McGuire added, noting Lockheed's 60 years of research on nuclear fusion as a potential energy source. 

Compact nuclear fusion would produce far less waste than coal-powered plants since it would use deuterium-tritium fuel, which can generate nearly 10 million times more energy than the same amount of fossil fuels, the company said.

Ultra-dense deuterium, an isotope of hydrogen, is found in the Earth's oceans, and tritium is made from natural lithium deposits.


Nuclear fusion is a process by which the nuclei of deuterium and tritium, both isotopes obtained from hydrogen, are fused together to create heavier particles.

In theory, energy generated through fusion would leave no dangerous waste or pollute the atmosphere.

And the fuel is found in abundance in seawater, which covers more than two-thirds of the planet.

The process requires extreme temperatures and pressure equivalent to those found on our Sun and other active stars. 

It said future reactors could use a different fuel and eliminate radioactive waste completely.

Mr McGuire said the company had several patents pending for the work and was looking for partners in academia, industry and among government laboratories to advance the work.

Lockheed said it had shown it could complete a design, build and test it in as little as a year, which should produce an operational reactor in 10 years.

A small reactor could power a U.S. Navy warship, and eliminate the need for other fuel sources that pose logistical challenges.

U.S. submarines and aircraft carriers run on nuclear power, but they have large fission reactors on board that have to be replaced on a regular cycle.

'What makes our project really interesting and feasible is that timeline as a potential solution,' Mr McGuire added.

However, there was some skepticism over the viability of the design. Dr Joel Gilmore is Principal - Renewable Energy & Climate Policy at Roam Consulting said: 

'Certainly, I'd welcome fusion as part of the world's energy mix, but this announcement is a long way from a working prototype, let alone a commercially viable power generator.

'Fusion requires incredibly high temperatures and pressures, which is challenging, and a lot of people have been working on fusion for a long time. So I won't get too excited yet.'

Professor Roger Dargaville is a research fellow and leader of the MEI Energy Futures Group at the University of Melbourne said the technology was necessary to avoid dangerous climate change.

'Nuclear energy is low carbon, and will be an important part of the electricity generation fleet in various countries around the world where other low carbon alternatives are not viable,' he said.

'The potential for the use of fusion reactors over fission is exciting news as the dangerous by-products of fission reactors are a major disadvantage of the technology.

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