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Friday, 1 July 2011

A Fusion Thruster for Space Travel

IEEE Spectrum
June 2011

Designers of satellites obsess about how little fuel their creations are able to carry into space. So the propulsion method they choose for maneuvers such as orbital transfers has to deliver a lot for a little.

Now a NASA engineer has come up with a new way to fling satellites through space on mere grams of fuel, tens of times as efficiently as today’s best space probe thrusters. The answer, he says, is fusion. You might be thinking, "Fusion? Really?" But it’s not as far-fetched as it sounds at first blush. The engineer delivered the details today at the IEEE Symposium on Fusion Engineering in Chicago.

Instead of using deuterium and tritium as the fuel stocks, the new motor extracts energy from boron fuel. Using boron, an "aneutronic" fuel, yields several advantages over conventional nuclear fusion. Aneutronic fusion, in which neutrons represent less than 1 percent of the energy-carrying particles that are the result of a reaction, is easier to manage. "Neutrons are problematic, because for one thing they’re difficult to harness," says John J. Chapman, the concept’s inventor and a physicist and electronics engineer at NASA’s Langley Research Center, in Virginia. To make use of neutrons, "you need an absorbing wall that converts the kinetic energy of the particles to thermal energy," he says. "In effect, all you’ve got is a fancy heat engine, with all its resultant losses and limitations."
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