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Lockheed’s Skunk Works at it again

Most Americans may not know what the Skunk Works are. A division of Lockheed set up after World War II, headed by the genius Kelly Johnson, the Skunk Works was named after the comic strip, “Li’l Abner,” in which there was a running joke about a mysterious and malodorous place deep in the forest called the “Skonk Works.”

Since that time, the Skunk Works (now the company logo) has developed, produced and secretly engineered some of our nation’s greatest out-of-left-field breakthroughs, from radar technology, aircraft development, computer technology and — yes, they are innovating again — energy production.

To explain their current progress, I need to explain the difference between fission and fusion technology in a nuclear reactor. Nuclear power plants today utilize fission power (AvWeek), “a process which involves the splitting of atoms to release energy for electricity.” 

However, nuclear fusion fuses together (AvWeek) “...two hydrogen isotopes: deuterium and tritium. Not only would the subsequent reaction create abundant carbon-free energy (deuterium is produced from sea water and tritium from lithium), but it would theoretically do so with no major environmental impact, shorter-lived residual radiation and no meltdown risk.”

Fusion reaction is the Holy Grail in nuclear energy. It’s clean (if it works), it is almost inexhaustible (the amount of input is minimal compared to output), and, what’s more, if they can get it to work, it’ll produce electricity at less than one penny per kilowatt hour to everyone.

Now, here’s the Skunk Works part. They built a small one. It worked perfectly, then three successive larger ones. All worked perfectly. Now they are going to build a larger one, a scaled up, more powerful test reactor at the Skunk Works in Palmdale, Calif., producing abundant carbon-free energy (deuterium is produced from sea water and tritium from lithium). And with almost no major environmental impact, shorter-lived residual radiation and no meltdown risk — if they can pull it off, all solar, wind, oil, gas and certainly coal plans can simply shut down.

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Is it complicated, requiring the very best forward-thinking minds? You bet. No practical fusion reactor has yet been made anywhere. The Brits, French and Germans are all trying, without good results. What Skunk Works did was build a small one (for space travel and satellites — all under a DARPA contract no doubt).  

The darn thing is really complex because the hot plasma in the reactor has to be controlled by huge magnetic “curtains” to keep it safe. When the input fuel is heated, it breaks down into ions and electrons.  The magnetic curtain keeps it all contained, allowing ions to overcome their mutual repulsion, collide and fuse — making more plasma, regenerating the whole fusion process which creates helium4, releasing their nucleus neutrons which transport their energy kinetically through the confining magnetic curtain.  

These neutrons heat the reactor wall which, passing through conventional heat exchangers, can then be used to drive turbine generators. Heat the water, make steam and spin generator turbines.

Skunk Works’ plan is to create progressively larger test reactors culminating in the development of an initial 100-megawatt production version capable of powering a ship or around 80,000 homes. Lockheed also envisages versions capable of powering large cargo and transport aircraft — on and off Earth.

Skunk Works director Babione explained progress, “We are currently scheduled to have [our next version] go online towards the end of this year, so that will be another significant leap in capability and towards demonstrating that the physics underlining our concept works.” This so-called T5 reactor will be used to demonstrate the high-density plasma source and the ability to capture and confine the neutral beam injectors which initiate the plasma ignition. 

As they progress up in scale, to what they call the T8 (before a commercial version could be possible) they hope to finally be able to prove that a deuterium-tritium ignited reactor showing full confinement and stability of the alpha particles can be produced by the fusion process. Given their world-renowned successes to date, it may be less than a decade before we see a Lockheed Skunk Works fusion reactor in every county, every city, every airplane.

Peter Riva, a former resident of Amenia Union, now lives in New Mexico.