Ever since I was in school practical fusion power was ‘twenty years away.’ Fusion power is ‘clean,’ abundant energy. Inventing a practical, useful fusion reactor would rank somewhere in the neighborhood of inventing fire or the wheel. As of April a group of scientists achieved a tiny but measurable net energy gain- for the first time a fusion reactor produced more energy than it used. Very little and very briefly, but it’s a start, right? A scientist associated with the project said that practical fusion power might be, guess what, only twenty years away. Yeah, we’ve heard that before. And he was wrong, just like scientists have been for the last thirty-plus years.
How can I say that? Because Lockheed/Martin’s Skunkworks has announced that they expect to have a prototype reactor working by 2017 that will produce 50 Megawatts of power. That’s enough energy to power 150,000 homes. They expect to double that output by 2020. And their reactor is a fraction of the size of a conventional Tokomak fusion reactor- you could pretty much fit two of them in a semitrailer.
This isn’t some starry-eyed researcher or basement inventor making extravagant claims. It’s the people that brought us the SR71 Blackbird and Stealth technology. They are not given to making wild claims that they can’t back up. Odds are they are not blowing smoke. If they say they are going to do something it’s because they are damned sure they are going to do something.
What this would mean is that the first time they fire up this reactor every energy-producing system in the world will become obsolete overnight. Of course it won’t work quite that way; it takes time to implement any new technology. Naturally the fossil-fuel industry won’t go down without a fight. You can anticipate massive lobbying campaigns to put up regulatory hurdles, oil-funded disinformation campaigns touting ‘the dangers of fusion’ and every dirty trick in the book being thrown at this new technology to slow or stop it’s implementation. But it’s cheap, clean and abundant energy; it’s going to win in the end.
Even when it inevitably wins out we’re still going to need oil. Lubricants, plastics… there are endless things that use petrochemicals and they still will. Maybe not millions upon millions of barrels a day, but we will still need it for the foreseeable future. That’s before you take into account that it would take decades at least to implement a fusion economy.
We’ve seen claims before and been disappointed so I’ll watch and wait and see what happens. But if the men and women at Lockheed are correct the future may just be arriving in 2017. It’s about time!