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Lockheed Martin announces its Skunk Works wants to build a fusion reactor

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Secretive defense contractor rushes in where theoretical physicists have feared to tread

Lockheed Martin has announced its Skunk Works has been working on a fusion reactor, in the hopes of meeting the world's demands for energy. The compact fusion reactor, or CFR, is (at least in theory) safer, cleaner, and more powerful than existing nuclear reactors, according to an Aviation Week article.

It's much harder to use fuel required for fusion to build weapons

Fusion happens when two or more high-energy atoms collide, creating a new atomic nucleus and releasing a great deal of energy, provided that the atoms being crunched together have a lower atomic mass than iron. It's how the sun shines: by slamming together high-energy hydrogen particles, and in so doing, creating helium atoms. It's the opposite of fission, which splits an atom apart to release energy. Fission is how the bombs dropped on Japan during World War II worked; the first energy-releasing reactor in the US was built in Idaho by Argonne National Lab and started operation in 1951.

It's much harder to use the nuclear fuel required for fusion to build weapons, and atomic scientists have called for further exploration of fusion power. Lockheed appears to have obliged.

Most existing fusion devices slam together atoms using a tokamak, a magnetic device that contains the superheated plasma required for fusion to occur. Invented in the Soviet Union in the 1950s, it's what most nuclear fusion devices use. The problem is, the energy required to sustain the reaction is almost as much as what's created by the reaction.

The research field is littered with failures

Lockheed says they've figured out how to solve that problem, using their CFR, a jet-engine-sized device. They've changed the process for holding the plasma in a way they say has 10 times the output of a tokamak.They also say there's no risk of a meltdown, and that radioactive waste will be considerably lessened.

No prototype has been built or tested yet, though, and this research field is littered with failures, despite millions of dollars of investment. The most notable is "cold fusion" — when, in 1989, Martin Fleischmann and Stanley Pons, working at the University of Utah, claimed they had achieved fusion in a simple tabletop device working at room temperature. However, no one who tried to reproduce their experiment was successful, and the finding was discredited.

Physicists often joke that widespread use of nuclear fusion energy has been 40 years away every single decade since the 1970s. Lockheed says its new device will be ready for prime time in 10 years, and that a prototype will be developed in 5. We'll see.

Correction: A previous version of this article said the bombs dropped in World War II were hydrogen. They weren't. We apologize for the error.