BETHESDA, Md., Oct. 15 (UPI) -- Skunk Works, a secretive experimental technology division of the aerospace and defense stalwart Lockheed Martin, says it's on its way to developing the first ever nuclear-powered jet engine -- what it's calling a compact fusion reactor, or CFR.
Skunk Works' bevy of engineers claim to have a number patents pending that protect their unique approach -- one they believe will result in a safer, cleaner, more powerful and efficient nuclear power production system.
Whereas most nuclear power plants -- like atomic weapons -- rely on fission, the splitting of atoms, Skunk Works' concept will harness the power of fusion, which relies on the fusing or joining together of atoms, ideally creating more energy than goes in. The concept is inspired by the process by which stars generate their own energy.
"Our compact fusion concept combines several alternative magnetic confinement approaches, taking the best parts of each, and offers a 90 percent size reduction over previous concepts," Tom McGuire, the leader of the CFR team at Skunk Works' Revolutionary Technology Programs, said in a recent press release. "The smaller size will allow us to design, build and test the CFR in less than a year."
The smaller size will also allow their concept to be scalable -- from powering aircraft, spacecraft, and cargo ships to something as large as a city power plant. The CFR's tube system allows it to hold much more plasma than other nuclear reactors, like the massive ITER fusion reactor being built in France.
"[The traditional tokamak designs] can only hold so much plasma, and we call that the beta limit," McGuire told Aviation Week. "[Their plasma ratio is] 5 percent or so of the confining pressure. We should be able to go to 100 percent or beyond."
McGuire and his team believe their concept will be fully tested in five years, and fully operational in ten.