SCIENCE
10/17/2014 08:33 am ET Updated Oct 17, 2014

Experts Skeptical Of Lockheed Martin's 'Nuclear Fusion Breakthrough'

Ships, aircraft, and even entire cities may become fusion-powered a lot sooner than you might have imagined.

That's the word from aerospace giant Lockheed Martin, which announced Wednesday that a research team in its Skunk Works division has found a way to make a nuclear fusion reactor that's 10 times smaller than previously thought possible.

If they're right -- and some experts are skeptical -- the reactor would be small enough to fit inside a tractor-trailer truck and would bring dramatic changes in the way energy is produced and consumed in the U.S.

As a result of the advance, Lockheed Martin foresees fusion-power airplanes capable of staying aloft for an entire year without refueling. Longer-term, the company says, the environmentally clean fusion power generated by the reactor could curb air and water pollution and make low-cost energy available to the developing world.

Fusion is considered safer and more efficient than conventional nuclear energy, which is generated not by fusing atoms together but by splitting them apart. The material used to fuel fusion reactions generates nearly 10 million times more energy than the same amount of conventional fossil fuels, according to Reuters.

What do the skeptics say?

"I think it's very overplayed," University of California nuclear engineering professor Dr. Edward Morse, told The Register. "They are being very cagey about divulging details."

Another skeptic, University of Texas physicist Dr. Swadesh M. Mahajan seemed to doubt Lockheed Martin's science.

"Getting net energy from fusion is such a goddamn difficult undertaking," he told Mother Jones. "We know of no materials that would be able to handle anywhere near that amount of heat."

But Dr. Mike Zarnstorff, deputy director for research at the U.S. Department of Energy's Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, remains cautiously optimistic.

"We don't know what the promise of this experiment is -- these type of ideas have been explored in the past -- but maybe there are new ideas here that will somehow address the previously found challenges," he told The Huffington Post in an email.

Lockheed said it plans to build and test the first version of the reactor within less than a year, and have a prototype ready in five.

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