High Hopes – Can Compact Fusion Unlock New Power For Space And Air Transport?


The announcement by Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works of plans to develop a compact fusion reactor (CFR) has potentially huge implications for future space and aircraft propulsion.  Should the current round of experiments prove out the viability of the physics, then the scale, safety, and power of the concept means that CFRs could one day be used to power space craft on deep-space missions to Mars. They might also be small enough to power large transport and freighters of the future, converting thermal energy through heat exchangers to power turbines in place of combustion chambers.

Here Tom McGuire, the inventor and leader of the Lockheed Martin CFR project, explains the basics of the concept.

According to McGuire, when it comes to deep space exploration “the grand vision is we can get to Mars in a month, and you can only do that if you have a ton of power. So this is the type of power source you’d need to do that. You would bypass some of the space radiation issues and make a real transportation path back and forth.” Of course, McGuire acknowledges the plan is “very ambitious” but relies entirely on “how light you can make it.” Given the possible power to weight ratio of a fusion system he thinks it might be in reach. “To get there fast you need to get to like 30 to 40 kms/sec delta-v (change in velocity). That’s an order of magnitude higher than you can do with chemical rockets. You need a very lightweight, high power output source and that is what we provide.”

For air-breathing aircraft propulsion, McGuire says the concept remains challenging but is far more viable with fusion rather than fission as was explored in the past. Earlier experiments, including the U.S.A.F’s nuclear aircraft project, paved the way for many areas that the CFR could take advantage of. “We have been looking at the gas turbine infrastructure as our heat transfer so in some sense fusion power is just making a hot wall. We will just take that hot wall and run it through a heat exchanger in a gas turbine, and some of that has already been figured out back in the 1950s. It is another answer to what makes you think you can do it. It is pretty audacious but we have 50 years of engineering behind us. It would be insulting to think we haven’t made some progress over that time.”

McGuire also realizes that when it comes to nuclear power, particularly for power generation on the ground and in the atmosphere, the whole concept has an image issue. “That’s another reason to be public and get the message out there. We want to get people excited about all the positives. It’s about education, and when people find out more about it (CFR), it’s hard not to get excited and support it. We have a long ways to go, and there are lots of challenges, but we have a path to do it and a community of fusion researchers and national labs. There’s a collaborative atmosphere and we have got some really good feedback so far. There’s even private capital being employed –- so people seem primed to go for this.”

Discuss this Blog Entry 13

on Oct 15, 2014

Now; let's get Tom McGuire (interesting that he shares names with one of the greatest LOCKHEED combat pilots EVER) fully-funded and supported, to build THE proof-of-concept system and get this thing out of the lab, into production as a powerplant for spacecraft AND power station, and END the dependency on fissionables and fossil-fuels for electricity. And eventually, for transportation.

on Oct 16, 2014

So how does this differ from a magnetic mirror/magnetic bottle and why will the outcome be any different from the previous investigations of this concept?

[Probkotron, 2X, Baseball I/II, MFTF/MFTF-B to name a few.]

on Oct 16, 2014

Does anyone want to see a nuclear explosion in the air? Airplanes almost always crash at certain point, and this is why nuclear power must not be used to power airplanes. A spaceship is a possibility, but not an airplane.

on Oct 16, 2014

A "nuclear explosion" requires a critical mass of uranium or plutonium.

on Oct 16, 2014

Very nice but... some questions arise:
- is the project based only on a theory or on previous positive experiments?
- magnetic field are generated through superconductivity, that requires very low temperature. How will it be kept after had ignited the plasma?

on Jan 29, 2015

I see nothing but big talk here.

on Nov 6, 2014

There was some other news recently about someone on the verge of a breakthrough on cold fusion, but I still think it's a scam. This is full on hot fusion, just miniaturized, so we know it can work.

on Dec 31, 2014

Judging by the presence of toroidal electrodes (not coils) suspended in the magnetic confinement vessel, the proposal involves a combination of magnetic confinement and electrostatic acceleration. The latter has been used in numerous demonstrations of actual inertial fusion, but it has not been possible to bring it anywhere near a practical energy output. If this claimed advance is real, publish more details so that the concept can be analyzed by other experts. In this field reports that withhold "proprietary" details have a very poor track record.

on Jan 29, 2015

so far, I see a whole lot of announcing but very very little demonstration.
If they want us to believe this, why don't they make it work on a laboratory counter first before they start talking about powering spacecraft with it? In other words, please show me a reactor on the table before you start talking about one near Mars.

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on Feb 4, 2015

As I know the Lockheed Martin, the US defence company behind stealth aircraft, is known for working on futuristic projects. Even so, its announcement last week surprised many people. The company revealed it is working on a fusion reactor that it says could power a small city but will be compact enough to fit on the back of a truck. At a press conference last week, Lockheed team leader Tom McGuire talked about fusion-powered ships and even aircraft. “We have an idea that makes us very excited,” he said. Fusion researchers have reacted with some scepticism, especially to the claim that the reactor could be ready for commercial use in 10 years

on Mar 6, 2015

Can anyone explain how this concept differs from the magnetic confinement tokamak design which has been developed for decades? The new ITER Project uses a huge tokamak design. What enables compact fusion device to be so much smaller and presumably more efficient than the tokamak?

on Nov 22, 2015

Read the article... it's explained

on Mar 21, 2016

Congratulations, you found me ! I have the answer and you guys are not even close. It is a Compact MARS ( MIRROR ADVANCED REACTOR SERIES). The material sciences, nuclear chemistry, pulse current, polyphase stator fans, I can explain to you in detail, but not for free :) gary.austin@sbcglobal.net 918-906-8624. I would be honored to hear from you!

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