Boeing has had a patent approved for an aircraft engine that employs laser-generated nuclear fusion as a power source, according to a recent story in Business Insider. The controversial idea is generating some attention from organizations, such as Counter Punch.
So, why the controversy?
The patent has generated fears (founded and unfounded) of what could happen if an aircraft containing radioactive fuel were to crash, spreading the fuel across the crash site. All in all, though, an understandable concern.
New Patent From Boeing Reveals That Tiny Nuclear Explosions Will Power Aircraft
The engine works by laser beams focused on a series of deuterium or tritium (radioactive isotopes of hydrogen). The result is a miniature nuclear explosion that “sprays” hydrogen and/or helium through a nozzle, thus creating massive amounts of thrust.
The explosions also create neutrons that bombard an inner wall of the combustion chamber coated with Uranium 238, creating heat that is harnessed by coolant on the other side of the inner wall that runs a turbine and a generator that powers the lasers. This bombardment of the Uranium 238 has an unfortunate side effect of transforming part of it into Uranium 239, a fissile material.
This idea is really nothing new, and is actually derived from an old idea to create a laser-generated fusion rocket for providing relatively quick flights to destinations throughout our solar system, and possibly interstellar voyages. That concept is based on an even older idea called Orion (not to be confused with the NASA spaceship being developed), that would have used the force generated by “small” nuclear bomb explosions to propel spacecraft.
Again, the concept is currently still in the patent stage, and is a long way from becoming a real design, much less a prototype.
Realistically, considering the real danger of using fissile material as fuel, it is highly doubtful that it will ever be used as an aircraft engine.
However, the idea has real merit for propelling spacecraft. These possibilities are especially interesting, given the recently renewed interest in deep space exploration.