Lockheed Martin Corp. said earlier this week it had made a technological breakthrough in developing a power source based on nuclear fusion, but a reactor based on the technology is still years in the future.

Lockheed, a big U.S. defence contractor, predicted the first reactors based on the technology, small enough to fit on the back of a truck, could be ready for use in a decade.

The announcement was met with skepticism among scientists, as the age of fusion reactors has been 10 years off for the past five decades.

Nathan Gilliland, CEO of Burnaby, B.C.-based General Fusion, is not one of the skeptics — his company is working towards the same goal.

“Fortunately things have really changed in the last five years. There’s really been a groundswell of progress — private companies such as Lockheed Martin, ourselves or others and a couple of government labs, so certainly the time has come it’s really now a matter of when, not if,” he said in an interview with CBC’s The Exchange with Amanda Lang.

The nuclear reactors now in use are based on fission — harvesting the energy created when an atom is split. Fusion is when hydrogen atoms combine together in a more stable form, releasing energy.

Promise of fusion

Fusion has been seen as a cheap, clean energy source that could shift economies off fossil fuels, which are at the heart of many geopolitical tensions.

“That energy is released with no emissions, no carbon dioxide emissions or other emissions,” Gilliland said.

Lockheed Martin provided few details of its project. Tom McGuire, who heads the project, said he and a small team had been working on fusion energy at Lockheed's secretive Skunk Works for about four years.

The project is going public now to find potential partners in industry and government to fund further work, McGuire said.

“We know that team well. They’re a very good team doing very good science. I think what they were trying to do was announce their novel approach to fusion which does have some merit,” Gilliland said.

He said there is financing available for fusion projects despite the long lead times.

Smaller scale for nuclear ships

Lockheed told Reuters the small size and shape of the fusion reactor (called a tokamak) scales everything down, including the development time.

The 100-megawatt reactor would use deuterium-tritium fuel, made of deuterium, an isotope of hydrogen found in the earth’s oceans, and tritium, made from natural lithium deposits.

A small reactor could power a U.S. navy warship, submarine or aircraft carrier, but take up less space than the current fission reactors in use, Lockheed said.

Gilliland said there are several approaches underway to fusion projects, with his own company, General Fusion, attempting to work with more simple materials.

“Our approach is to be much more practical and commercial and ultimately less expensive than some other approaches to fusion those approaches were much more extreme in how dense the hydrogen fuel needs to be — whether it’s very low density or very high density,” Gilliland said.

He said there is still a long lead time until a technology is developed that will create electricity on a large scale, to replace coal plants.

“The technology is proven to work, the question is, when can we produce power plants that put electrons on the grid.”