Preamplifier at the National Ignition Facility by Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons. The National Ignition Facility is a laser-based fusion research device in California.
Submarines: the mother of all invention.
Or at least, a very specific kind of invention.
Fusion as a power source is a technology that has been perpetually 40 years in the future, ever since scientists first began butting their heads against the challenge in the 1950s.
Fortunately, the possibility of nuclear propulsion for an enclosed capsule filled with humans appears to be such a big, lucrative carrot that submarines can push nuclear research – of any kind – to delirious heights.
On May 31, 1953, Vice-Admiral Hyman G. Rickover had the awe-inspiring hubris to test the first nuclear-powered submarine (to be clear: the first nuclear-powered anything) in the middle of Idaho.
What truly boggles the mind is that these engineers in the middle of the desert, wrestling with forces no one had ever previously dreamed of controlling, were making their own lives exponentially more difficult by building the reactor to match the exacting technical requirements of an underwater vessel. In God’s name, why?
The telling line in Rickover’s account comes after the daring story of success in the desert:
A month after nuclear power was first produced, the most doubting among those who had participated in the STR project knew that atomic propulsion of ships was feasible, that it was only a matter of time before the technology developed for Mark I would bring about a revolution in Naval engineering, strategy and tactics. We knew, too, that industrial nuclear power could be built on the same technological foundations.
To repeat: one of the greatest leaps in human engineering of all time was intended to increase the USA’s relative advantage in oceanic warfare. And, as an afterthought, power the world through clean energy.
If that sounds like satire, best not to laugh too hard before examining Lockheed’s rhetoric around their latest advance.
“A small reactor could power a US navy warship, submarine or aircraft carrier, but take up less space than the current fission reactors in use,” according to a Lockheed spokesperson.
Is it happening again?
There are a couple reasons to think it might, including the fact that Lockheed Martin is not known for its sense of humour. If they’re waist-deep in this project, then it’s probably for a good reason.
Journalist Gwynne Dyer certainly thinks so:
Lockheed Martin is not a fringe player hyping some technological fantasy in the hope of raising enough capital to build a prototype. It’s the biggest player in US defence-related technology, and it has a reputation to protect. It would not have invited Aviation Week in last week unless it was pretty confident that the project will succeed.
Confidence isn’t the same as a working reactor, but it’s a step.
The other big step is showing that the physics works. The fusion problem has never been just about technological know-how; rather, scientists have very real doubts that the necessary physics are even theoretically possible.
It sounds like Lockheed really feels they can put that question to rest. Once theoretical plausibility has been shown, it’ll be a mad dash to the finish between anyone willing to invest billions to make trillions.
Maybe it’s just a coincidence that both fission and fusion breakthroughs have been about submarines and military advances. An alternate theory is that such precise applications are useful in focusing research. Either way, the world could have a source of unlimited clean energy within the next decade.
And more importantly: really really nice submarines.
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