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Lockheed Martin’s announcement last week that it had secretly developed a promising design for a compact nuclear fusion reactor has met with excitement but also skepticism over the basic feasibility of its approach.

Nuclear fusion could produce far more energy, far more cleanly, than the fission reactions at the heart of today’s nuclear power plants. But there are huge obstacles and no hard evidence that Lockheed has overcome them. The so-far-insurmountable challenge is to confine hydrogen plasma at conditions under which the hydrogen nuclei fuse together at levels that release a useful amount of energy. In decades of research, nobody has yet produced more energy from fusion reaction experiments than was required to conduct the experiments in the first place.

Most research efforts use a method that tries to contain hot plasma within magnetic fields in a doughnut-shaped device called a tokamak. Three research-scale tokamaks operate in the United States: one at MIT, another at a lab in Princeton, and a third at a Department of Energy lab in San Diego. The world’s largest tokamak is under construction in France at an international facility known as ITER, at a projected cost of $50 billion.

Tom McGuire, project lead of the Lockheed effort, said in an interview that the company has come up with a compact design, called a high beta fusion reactor, based on principles of so-called “magnetic mirror confinement.” This approach tries to contain plasma by reflecting particles from high-density magnetic fields to low-density ones.

My money is on Lockheed. To read more, click here.