UAH doctoral candidate Ross Cortez assembles a device that generates massive bursts of electricity for fusion propulsion research.

We’ve been reporting various stories for a little over a year now about how engineers, physicists and teams of researchers have been hard at work building the future, using Star Trek as the master pattern.  As exciting as all this has been, you’re not going to believe this next one: working fusion-powered impulse engines that run on – drum roll, please  – dilithium crystals.  The University of Alabama-Huntsville (UAH) aerospace engineers are working with NASA, Boeing and Oak Ridge National Laboratory to come up with a means to propel spacecraft at mind-bending speeds.

“Star Trek fans love it, especially when we call the concept an impulse drive, which is what it is,” says team member Ross Cortez, an aerospace engineering Ph.D. candidate at UAH’s Aerophysics Research Center. “The fusion fuel we’re focusing on is deuterium [a stable isotope of hydrogen] and Li6 [a stable isotope of the metal lithium] in a crystal structure. That’s basically dilithium crystals we’re using.”

Impulse engines, powered by dilithium crystals.  Let that roll around in your brain for a few minutes.

The plan at the moment is to develop a nuclear fusion propulsion system by 2030 that could get a spacecraft from Earth to Mars in around three months.  It should be twice as fast as the nuclear fission engine, another idea that’s being examined but that hasn’t been built yet.  The current design involves a ship built in orbit so the thrusters and ship wouldn’t have to be designed to cope with atmosphere or climbing out of Earth’s gravity well under its own power.  It could weigh in at as much as 500 tons. To give you some perspective on that, this is roughly the weight of one of the larger commercial jetliners.

A Few Problems To Solve

In order for a fusion powered drive to work, it has to produce more energy than it consumes creating the reaction in the first place.  So far nobody’s managed that, but last week, Sandia National Laboratory investigators said they are getting closer to “break-even.” A side benefit of solving this problem is that humanity will have a virtually limitless supply of clean, radiation-free power that does not depend on combustion of limited reserves of antique petrochemical slime.

“We’re interested in deep-space exploration,” says Dr. Jason Cassibry, a UAH engineering professor and the head of the research team. “Right now humans are stuck in low Earth orbit, but we want to explore the solar system. We’re trying to come up with a system that will demonstrate break-even for thermonuclear propulsion.”

According to astronomy professor Courtney Seligman, the next date Earth will be closest to Mars after the team’s 2030 objective will be in May 2031, when the two planets will be 51.4 million miles apart. For the team’s fusion-powered spacecraft to reach the red planet in three months at that point, it would have to travel at almost 24,000 miles per hour, or about 10 times the muzzle velocity of a bullet fired from an assault rifle. Cortez thinks a fusion impulse drive might propal a craft to a mind-bending speed of 62,6000 miles an hour, nearly the speed the Earth travels in its orbit around the sun.

Z-pinch fusion and magnetic nozzles

How Z-Pinch fusion works – a magnetic compression bottle, powered by the fusion reaction, compresses lithium wire onto a dilithium crystal core in the center.

To get this kind of push out of the engines, the researchers are looking at something called z-pinch fusion. Take a cylindrical array of super-thin lithium wires and put millions of amperes of electricity in 100 nanosecond pulses. This will produce about three terrawatts of power, enough to produce a magnetic field around the array and vaporize the wires to form a plasma. The magnetic field pinches the plasma until it collapses on a core of deuterium and lithium, which they hope will cause its atoms to fuse and result in a massive release of energy.  That’s where the dilithium crystals come in.  The math says they’d get millions of pounds of thrust out of the back of this thing, on the order of Saturn-V-class thrust.

After solving the fusion problem, they have to figure out how to direct the resulting blast, which will be quite a trick considering that the reaction would produce temperatures in millions of degrees Celsius, hot enough to convert any matter into its component subatomic particles – as hot as the surface of the sun.  The answer may be to create nozzles made entirely from magnetic fields  to control the maelstrom of raw energy.

“We’re facing some pretty heavy problems to getting this thing working; it won’t be a cinch,” Cortez says. “But we’re very ambitious and we’ve got a lot of great ideas. Put enough bright people to work on it and you’re going to get gold or, in this case, fusion.”

The Meta View

For about the last year, Krypton Radio has reported on various advances in technology that appear to be inspired by that time honored tent pole of the science fiction genre in media, Star Trek.  Today’s article underscores all this.  You can’t look at all of these Star Trek inspired technologies and not be profoundly curious as to why it’s all happening. Is this more than just a bunch of engineers being inspired by their favorite science fiction show?  Or is humanity trying to build starships as a species directive?

Look at these other articles – taken one at a time, they’re interesting, and they’re very cool.  But take a moment and look at them all together.  What is really going on here? The ramifications are staggering.

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Links

Links not referring to scientific progress, but otherwise significant or interesting to Star Trek fans: