Fusion power has been the Holy Grail of clean energy for decades. Now the US Navy has secured a patent on a compact fusion reactor design that would revolutionize the world — if it works. The entire situation is something of a muddle, even by the standards of the US Trade and Patent Office, which is really saying something.
Let’s start at the beginning. Fusion could provide enormous amounts of energy with none of the waste problems associated with fission-based nuclear power production. Because deuterium can be extracted from seawater, there’s enough existent material on Earth to meet our planetary energy needs for millions of years, vastly outstripping the recoverable reserves of any other fossil fuel. Deployed in space, fusion rockets would vastly accelerate space travel. One 1998 paper estimated a round trip time from Earth to Mars of just 130 days. At present, it takes 150-300 days to reach Mars from Earth depending on the relative position of the two planets.
Fusion is incredibly efficient, incredibly powerful, and currently completely unavailable outside of nuclear weapons or the Sun. Scientists have not discovered how to break even on energy production. To date, the energy required to maintain a fusion reaction has been higher than the energy we can extract from the process. Any discovery that moves us forward towards achievable, cost-effective fusion power is a critical one, whether your interests are in reducing CO2 emissions, exploring space, or providing reliable baseline power that’s immune to meltdown and runaway reactions.
Here’s the tokamak at the JET fusion lab in the UK, a smaller version of the tokamak that will eventually be installed at ITER.
The patent granted to the Navy is for a “plasma compression fusion” device, but the document is rather vague on how these gains are achieved. Phrases like “It is a feature of the present invention to provide a plasma compression fusion device that generates energy gain by plasma compression-induced nuclear fusion,” are nearly tautological in their construction. Elsewhere, the document claims: “It is a feature of the present invention to provide a plasma compression fusion device that can produce power in the gigawatt to terawatt range (and higher), with input power in the kilowatt to megawatt range.”
Remember what we said about the difficulty of getting to net-positive power? This patent is basically claiming it can sidestep all such problems. That’s another part of why I’m fundamentally uncertain what to think here; the author is claiming his invention can yield gigawatt-level energy from kilowatt input, or terawatt output with megawatt input. It would be a momentous achievement for us to get megawatt-level output from a smaller number of megawatts of input at this point. Granted, patents are allowed to look forward towards what they expect will be achievable in the future, but again, it’s not clear where these improvements are coming from.
This clears everything up.
Supposedly the reactor is also capable of fusion ignition, a self-sustaining reaction in which the energy produced by the reactor is high enough to heat the fuel mass quicker than various loss mechanisms can cool it. Ignition is an even more advanced goal than achieving a break-even point, because break-even explicitly ignores energy lost to the reactor’s surroundings. Ignition does not, and is therefore required any practical commercial reactor. But again, claiming to have solved the ignition problem before we’ve even managed to break even on net power production is a huge claim to make.
Furthermore, as The Drive has detailed in an extensive report, the author behind this patent, Salvatore Cezare Pais, has a history of filing very strange patents. Pais works as an aerospace engineer at the Navy’s top aircraft test base. One of his previous patents describes a “hybrid aerospace-underwater craft.” The craft is supposedly capable of creating a “quantum vacuum” around itself, allowing it to repel air and water molecules with which it comes in contact, and allowing for incredible speed and maneuverability. As The Drive summarized in that instance:
[I]f you can a) create a room temperature superconductor capable of storing an incredibly high amount of energy and b) get the energy field created by that superconductor moving at incredibly high speeds around or within the craft, you can create a polarized energy vacuum around it which allows it to basically ignore the energy of the air or water around it, thereby removing its own inertia and mass from the equation.
But Pais isn’t just a crackpot with a Gmail account. When the USTPO pushed back on awarding him a patent related to this supposed discovery, the CTO of the US Naval Aviation Enterprise, Dr. James Sheehy, wrote to the patent office to vouch for its legitimacy. The relationship between this event and the Navy’s willingness to confirm the legitimacy of UFO videos released last month is a subject of ongoing speculation.
The Drive notes that every physicist it has spoken to about Pais’ patents, including this one, “thinks all of these patents are beyond the realm of known physics and are almost laughable in terms of viability.” The Navy has been categorically unwilling to discuss why it thinks otherwise. The end result of all this is that the Navy now has a patent on a type of compact nuclear reactor that could solve just about every energy problem facing the human race today, but has revealed nothing about whether we’re any closer to building the kind of device it supposedly patented.
Clear as mud.