Is Lockheed Martin working on a nuclear fusion-powered fighter jet?

29 Mar 2018

Lockheed Martin’s F-22 Raptor aircraft. Image: Yeongsik Im/Shutterstock

Lockheed Martin quietly obtained a patent for what could be a game-changing nuclear fusion reactor, one that could potentially fit into a fighter jet.

If the latest patent from defence manufacturing giant Lockheed Martin is anything to go by, nuclear fusion technology could revolutionise the future of travel.

For those not in the know, a nuclear fusion reactor is one of the holy grails of science, promising to replicate the inner workings of the sun in a confined reactor, capable of generating huge, near-limitless amounts of energy cheaply with no environmental impact.

Not the first nuclear aircraft

The Drive recently reported that a patent filed by Lockheed Martin was approved in February of this year for a compact fusion reactor that could not only be fitted on board an aircraft carrier to power its systems, but also on board a fighter jet.

If such a reactor was achieved, a fighter jet could potentially fly for as long as feasibly possible without needing to refuel, and wouldn’t pose a risk in terms of a potential nuclear accident.

Nuclear fission aircraft

The only US aircraft to carry a nuclear reactor was the NB-36H (centre foreground). The project was cancelled in 1958. Image: USAF

During the 1950s, the US and Soviet Union tested aircraft that included a nuclear fission engine in order to develop aircraft that could fly for months at a time so that they could be prepared for the declaration of nuclear war.

However, the intense radiation emitted from the reactor was a threat to the crew on board, and would be catastrophic for anyone on the ground in the event of an accident.

The patents were first discovered by aircraft researcher and journalist Stephen Trimble, who also confirmed that a prototype reactor was being developed at Lockheed Martin’s Palmdale facility in California.

Nuclear drones patrolling indefinitely

Patents for the reactor were filed in 2014 by the company’s advanced research division, Skunk Works, with the aim of having its compact fusion reactor (CFR) ready by 2019.

While it has obviously missed that deadline, the delay does not mean the technology is to be left behind.

As Dr Thomas McGuire, head of Skunk Works’ Compact Fusion Project, detailed in a 2014 report, the smaller reactor is more feasible than a large-scale one.

If the system functions as expected, the CFR could take 11kg of fuel in the form of the hydrogen isotopes deuterium and tritium, and run the reactor for an entire year without needing to stop.

Throughout that time, it would be consistently pumping out 100MW of power, enough to power up to 80,000 homes.

When discussing how it could impact aircraft design, Lockheed Martin said that this amount of power would allow it to fly indefinitely and would only be hampered by the crew’s need for food and water on the ground.

The likelier option is that this would translate extremely well into drone aircraft used to patrol the skies for years at a time, which, admittedly, sounds a little terrifying.

Lockheed Martin’s F-22 Raptor aircraft. Image: Yeongsik Im/Shutterstock

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic