Highlight text to annotate itX
ASTRO TELLER: There is a place that has been doing moonshots
for quite a while.
I think that the lore about Bell Labs and Xerox Park is
well known, and I think it's a little unfair that the place
that has, in a way, been running the longest, and
certainly over the last 30 years, done some of the most
exciting stuff, is not as well known.
This is Skunk Works at Lockheed Martin.
But they are on a mission to take real moonshots, to do
radical things on a regular basis.
And so I'm excited, not only to hear about what Charles is
going to tell us, I think this particular moonshot is
But I also think it's great to see that there is a place in
the world that is doing this on a regular systemized basis.
Welcome to Solve for X, Charles, can't
wait for your talk.
CHARLES CHASE: Thank you.
So at the Skunk Works we very seldom get to talk about what
we do behind closed doors.
So I'm really excited to be able to share with you a
project that we've been working that might be able to
bring energy for everyone.
And you know, just to give it some perspective, the energy
problem is really an enduring one, it's an obvious one.
And the world uses enough energy for every man, woman,
and child to be running a refrigerator, an air
conditioner, a TV, and a microwave all at the same
time, 24/7, 365 days a year.
But that energy is not evenly distributed.
There's still 1.3 billion people in the world without
So wouldn't it be wonderful to be able to bring power to the
That would just be a fantastic thing, and, of course, our
energy use is only growing.
It's projected to about double by 2050.
And to try to meet some of those needs, there's like a
whole bunch of coal plants that have been proposed, that
are in the planning stages.
So not only are those going to cost significant capital to
build, about $4 trillion, but also going to have a
significant impact on our health and on our environment.
So an approach that people have looked at, really since
the early '50s, which is a zero emission approach to
generating energy, is fusion.
And in fusion, what's depicted here is really the simplest
fusion reaction to achieve.
So what you do is you bring together two isotopes of
hydrogen, deuterium and tritium.
And so when you bring those together with sufficient
energy and for a long enough time in a small enough volume,
they fuse together creating helium, the neutron, and a
whole bunch of energy, that you can harvest with an old
fashioned heat energy cycle.
So you can generate energy with the heat.
So in addition to being zero emission, fusion has a lot of
Its energy density is six orders of magnitude
greater than oil.
And the fuel is very low cost and quite plentiful.
Deuterium comes from seawater.
You can buy bottles of it on the internet for
a few hundred bucks.
And lithium, that would be used to breed the tritium, is
also really very plentiful.
And this fuel, there's no proliferation issues, so you
can't make a bomb out of this material.
And there's no meltdown risk.
So you take away the input energy to the fusion reaction
and the reaction stops immediately.
And there's very, very little long lived radioactive waste.
So because of the promise, there's been, really since the
early '50s, lots of work on developing
different fusion concepts.
But there's really one approach that has come to
dominate the fusion community, and that's
what's called a tokamak.
And there's been more than 200 tokamaks built across the
world to date.
They've come closer to being able to generate more energy
out than energy in than any other approach.
But the physics of a tokamak lead to a
really enormous size.
So what's depicted here is the current major tokamak effort
going on, which is the international ITER project
being constructed in the south of France.
This thing was started at a summit between Gorbachev and
Reagan, so it's been a long time getting to this point.
And you can see the scale, if you look at the very lower
I don't know if you can see a little man over there.
Let me have a little pointer here.
So yeah, so here's a little guy right here.
So here's the guy.
And again, this scale is driven by the physics.
You can't make this smaller.
So that scale naturally leads to extremely high costs, high
complexity, and really long time frames.
The first power plant based on ITER is not projected to be
ready until the mid 2040s at best.
So what if there was another way of doing this?
If you weren't hampered by the physics of a tokamak, and you
were able to generate fusion in a compact form factor.
Something that would generate 100 megawatts of power.
Enough power for a small city of 50,000 to 100,000 people,
and something that would fit on the back of a truck.
And so if you think of the complexity of something like
this, it's closer to that of a jet engine.
So it's something that you would be able to build on a
production line, versus being a major
And so we can all imagine the benefits to the world of
having a virtually unlimited zero emission energy source.
We would be able to provide decentralized power for the
We would have plenty of energy for desalinization, so we
could have clean water.
We'd have a base load for an electric
And we could even enable fast space travel.
So we could get to Mars in a month, versus six months and
not have to worry about some of the cosmic
radiation health issues.
So we really think, at Lockheed, that we can make
this a reality.
And so what we've done is we've built upon the past 50
years of fusion research and created a brand new way of
generating fusion that's very suitable for a very compact
And, in my mind, this is a perfect example of the
Where you take different parts of things that already exist
to come up with something new.
And so we've had a--
I really can't say enough about the brilliant,
fantastic, dedicated team we've had working on this.
Some of them are pictured here, in our lab, including
On the very right, is Tom McGuire.
He's the guy who's come up with our brand new concept.
And so you can see in our lab, in the background, you can see
our experiment, which is a cylindrical shape.
It's about 1 meter in diameter by about 2 meters long.
And so an actual 100 megawatt reactor would be
about twice that size.
And so in our experiment, what we do is we put in deuterium
gas and then we heat it up with RF energy.
And so that generates a plasma that the magnetic fields hold
So what we do is, we look and we see how that plasma evolves
over time, and how well it's confined, what temperature it
can get to, and seeing if that matches what our predictions
and our analysis says how the plasma behaves.
Basically, we're taking a look at how the joule seconds per
cubic meter are changing over time and seeing if those
conditions are what are needed for fusion.
And so you can see on the right, is during an experiment
inside our chamber.
And you can see the plasma.
And then, what you see here, this is a coil inside, this is
one of the magnetic coils inside, and then you can see
the plasma following the magnetic field lines exactly
So this configuration is something that's called a high
And what that refers to is the ratio of the magnetic field
pressure to the pressure of the plasma that wants to
So in this type of configuration, the magnetic
field increases as you're going out from the center of
So as the plasma wants to expand out, it encounters a
stronger and stronger magnetic field that tends to push it
back into place, and so it does that until it reaches an
And we have a beta of almost one in our configuration,
which is in sharp contrast to a tokamak.
In a tokamak, it's that rotating plasma that generates
the magnetic field itself.
And so, in that case, the magnetic field actually dies
out as it goes away from the center of the plasma.
And so the plasma will expand.
As it expands it encounters a weaker and weaker force so it
tends to go unstable, and that's like the major issue
that has plagued tokamaks over the years.
And it's a negative feedback loop as well because as the
plasma expands in the tokamak, the magnetic field gets weaker
and weaker, leading to more unstability issues.
In our case, again, the magnetic field is stronger as
you're going out and it pushes the plasma back in.
Additionally, we have very few open field lines.
So there are hardly any paths for the particles to be able
to leak out of the system.
And then, another important consideration is the curvature
of the magnetic field lines.
You want to have what's called good curvature, which is like
kind of an arch shape.
That is very good at, again, keeping the magnetic field
lines and the plasma, the way the plasma
flows, contained in.
So in what we've come up with, we've been able to combine
together these three factors, very high beta, very few
escape points with the field lines, and then, also this
excellent curvature, so we have good MHD stability.
And we think this is really the best approach that we've
seen, of course we think that, to accomplish this.
And so, I don't know, maybe we really can change
the world with this.
And, again, I just wanted to make the point that because
the complexity is more suited to something you can put into
production on a production line, versus a major
infrastructure project that takes a consortium of
governments to achieve, the timeline to making this happen
is way different.
So five years from now, we could have a 100 megawatt
prototype reactor, and then in a 10 year time frame, a fully
engineered power plant based on this approach.
And so if you look at the bigger picture of what that
means, is that the fact that we could be ready with a power
plant in 10 years, would enable us to meet global
electricity demands by around the 2050 time frame, in time
to have a significant impact on our climate.
And you contrast that with the current approach of the fusion
community, where they would not be able to meet global
electricity demands until sometime close to the turn of
the century, when it might be just a little too late.
So when we can provide energy for everyone, it's interesting
to think about what the far term impact will be of that.
And I like to think about what's going to happen when
the whole world is first world, and what new
interactions are going to be possible when that happens.
This rising billion people.
And then, also, what new adjacent possibles are going
to be possible, that are not-- we can't even imagine now,
because the pieces don't exist yet.
And so what I like to think is that there's really only one
guarantee, and that's if we don't try,
nothing is going to happen.
And I think it really behooves us to try to make this happen,
and it takes a persistence of vision.