By Alex Kimani
Three decades ago, we threw cold fusion in the sci-fi trash bin. But if the idea was so outrageous, why is a multi-billion-dollar defense company now returning to the cold fusion revolution?
Because what we shrugged off thirty years ago, says Lockheed Martin, could well change the world forever.
If the world is ever going to solve the ongoing energy and climate change crisis, scientists and researchers need to start thinking outside the box. Way outside the box.
Thirty years ago, a pair of chemists caused quite a stir when they claimed to have achieved cold fusion with a simple tabletop apparatus at room temperature. But as fate would have it, other experimenters failed to replicate their work, and the scientific community tossed cold fusion onto technology’s trash heap as just another hare-brained notion of overreaching clean energy buffs.
Fortunately, the alternative energy gold rush remains alive and well as the world’s biggest pure-play defense contractor, Lockheed Martin, is proving with its ambitious Compact Fusion Reactor Program.
What is cold fusion?
Basically, cold fusion involves producing energy using the same processes that power the sun and other stars – but at room temperature.
In a past article we looked at how researchers have been grappling with the problem of building a fusion reactor that is net energy positive.
Cold fusion, if possible, would solve a big part of this puzzle because it wouldn’t require the insane amount of energy that is currently needed to get a fusion reaction going.
In normal fusion, two smaller nuclei fuse to form a new, larger nucleus. If the large nucleus is unstable, it quickly disintegrates and releases energy.
However, the big challenge with fusion is that the nuclei have powerful positive charges that create strong repulsive forces. A lot of energy is, therefore, required to make them approach each other and fuse. To achieve the required kinetic energy for fusion to become possible on our planet, temperatures in the order of 50 million degrees Celsius or more are necessary. In controlled fusion energy experiments such as tokamaks, electromagnetic waves or neutral particle beams are used to heat magnetically confined plasma. Cold fusion attempts to achieve fusion at or near room temperature by dissolving deuterium in a solid, usually palladium, metal.
Cold fusion as a concept is nothing new. The idea itself was hatched back in the 1920s.
The whole idea of cold fusion is that it’s possible to dissolve hydrogen and its isotopes in certain solids in high enough concentrations that the hydrogen nuclei are closer than they would be even in solid hydrogen and cause them to fuse. Further, the negative electrical charges of the electrons in the solid partly cancel the repulsion forces between the nuclei, thus facilitating the fusion process.
Compact Fusion Reactor Program
When Lockheed Martin announced in 2014 that it planned to build a compact fusion reactor (CFR) in just 10 years, many critics (and cynics) quickly dismissed the idea as ridiculous, and the company’s shares tanked.
Maybe that’s why Lockheed has kept its project under wraps for five years – that is until July this year when Aviation Week gave us a glimpse of what’s been going on in the company’s Skunk Works labs in Palmdale, California.
Lockheed’s initial plan was to build progressively bigger and improved “test” reactors at a one-per-year cadence – T1 in the first year, T2 in the second… culminating in a prototype it has dubbed “TX”, which will be capable of running for not less than 10 seconds in steady state after the injectors are turned off.
In the Aviation Week update, Lockheed revealed that it’s currently is working on the “T4B” test reactor.
At first glance that would seem to suggest that the company has nearly managed to meet its goal of one reactor per year – that is, if you ignore the fact T4 was actually unveiled in 2014-2015.
In other words, Lockheed was already in the fourth iteration of its reactors when it unveiled the project to the public, and has taken about four years to move from T4 to T4B. At the risk of sounding like one of the many cold fusion cynics, that really looks like a baby step.
Even Aviation Week deadpanned: “Progress has been slower than hoped.”
However, the company remains quite optimistic despite the slower-than-expected progress. In the words of Skunk Works vice president and general manager Jeff Babione: “…the work we have done today verifies our models and shows that the physics we are talking about – the basis of what we are trying to do – is sound. We continue to progress that capability.’’
Lockheed hopes to commence work on the next iteration – T5 – before the end of the current year. The company will then build three more reactors culminating in T8, which it hopes will demonstrate stable fusion and full confinement.
We can only hope that Lockheed will achieve its ambition to build three reactors in the remaining five years, though on the evidence of T4/T4B that doesn’t seem very likely.
Again at the risk of sounding too negative (we are neutral) on the plausibility of cold fusion, we have to point out that early experiments have failed to detect any signs of fusion under the methods described here.
Further, modern theoretical calculations show that although the proposed effects are real, they are much too small to produce any detectable rates of fusion. Indeed, in a review paper published by US and Canadian researchers funded by Google, no evidence of cold fusion has been found as earlier claimed.
Moral of the story? Chances are, we’ll hit cold fusion—eventually. But don’t rush to dump your oil and fossil fuel stocks just yet.