Normally a nuclear fusion plant looks like this, the National Ignition Facility (NIF) at Lawrence Livermore National Labs. But Boeing think they can do it all in an aircraft engine. Photo: Steve Jurvetson via Flickr (CC BY).
Nuclear powered aircraft? Nice idea, Boeing ...
14th July 2015
Boeing has just been granted a patent on a design for aircraft powered by nuclear fusion, writes Karl Grossman. What a great idea! Apart from the irradiation of plane and passengers with neutrons and gamma rays, the dangers of radioactive contamination ... and the fact that clean, green solar powered flight is taking off.
Imagine getting into an airplane that has minor nuclear explosions for propulsion. What about the implications of such an aircraft going down? We just saw an F-16 come down over South Carolina, its jet engine landing in someone's backyard.
Consider getting on to an airplane with nuclear-powered engines.
Consider the consequences if an atomic airplane crashes.
The Boeing Company last week received approval from the US Patent and Trademark Office for an airplane engine that combines the use of lasers and nuclear power.
It's a leap into mad science-and backwards to a 1950s notion of nuclear-powered aircraft.
The patent approval to America's biggest airplane manufacturer comes as solar power and green fuels are being shown to be feasible energy sources for flight-as they are for uses on earth.
Last week an airplane using only solar power, Solar Impulse 2, landed in Hawaii after flying across the Pacific. It's to go on flying around the world.
Also last week, in an expansion of the use of biofuels for aviation, United Airlines announced the start of flights between Los Angeles and San Francisco of jets using fuel derived from farm waste. United further said it will invest $30 million in one of the major producers of jet bio-fuels, Fulcrum BioEnergy.
Laser-triggered nuclear fusion
The Boeing scheme would have lasers in an airplane engine bombard deuterium or tritium causing a nuclear explosion with its force providing thrust.
Business Insider features a video (see below) with its article on the Boeing patent that features, Deepak Gupta, founder of PatentYogi, a YouTube channel. Gupta declares: "This is another cool invention from Boeing. Boeing has patented nuclear power aircrafts. The engines of these aircrafts include a unique propulsion system."
As Gupta explains the process: "A stream of pellets containing nuclear material such as deuterium or tritium is fed into a hot-spot within a thruster of the aircraft. Then multiple high powered laser beams are all focused onto the hot spot. The pellet is instantly vaporized and the high temperature causes a nuclear fusion reaction.
"In effect, it causes a tiny nuclear explosion that scatters atoms and high energy neutrons in all directions. This flow of material is concentrated to exit out of the thruster thus propelling the aircraft forward with great force."
"And this is where Boeing has done something extremely clever", Gupta continues. "The inner walls of the thruster are coated with ... Uranium-238 that undergoes a nuclear fission reaction upon being struck by high energy neutrons. This releases enormous energy in the form of heat.
(Note: this is wrong. Uranium-238 is not fissile. Under neutron irradiation it transmutes to Plutonium-239, which is fissile. The purpose of the U-238 would surely be to shield the plane and passengers from the neutrons released by the nuclear fusion.)
"A coolant is circulated along the inner walls to pick up this heat and power a turbine which in turn generates huge amounts of electric power. And guess what this electric power is used for? To power the same lasers that created the electric power."
"Soon", says Gupta, "tiny nuclear bombs exploding inside a plane may be business as usual." He adds: "I would love to use these non-polluting aircraft."
Is the Boeing scheme really the basis for non-polluting aircraft?
No way, says Jim Riccio, nuclear analyst for Greenpeace: "Since the supposed ‘Nuclear Renaissance' is dead in the west, there are some who are stretching to find applications for nuclear power - and this is a very long stretch."
"Imagine getting into an airplane that has minor nuclear explosions for propulsion. What about the implications of such an aircraft going down? We just saw an F-16 come down over South Carolina, its jet engine landing in someone's backyard."
"Meanwhile, we have breakthroughs in solar energy-to the extent of that solar plane showing solar's potential. Solar energy is being used to accomplish things that nuclear couldn't, as we watch solar costs plummet and nuclear go through the roof. The future is solar, not nuclear, despite Boeing's attempt."
Garry Morgan, long experienced in radiation issues including as a nuclear, biological and chemical warfare specialist in the US Army, notes that "this is not the first time atomic engines for aircraft have been tried."
In the 1950s the US military developed nuclear-powered aircraft but ran into the huge problem of requiring heavy shielding to protect pilots and crew from radioactivity, noted Morgan. He is now director of community radiation and health monitoring for the Bellafonte Efficiency & Sustainability Team - Mothers Against Tennessee River Radiation, initiatives of the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League.
In the military's Nuclear Energy for Propulsion of Aircraft project of the 50s, ground tests were conducted of atomic airplane engines. A B-36 bomber was renamed an NB-36-NB for Nuclear Bomber - and made numerous test flights with an onboard reactor operating although not used to power engines.
A few small problems - like passenger irradiation with neutrons and gamma rays
Regarding the Boeing scheme, the result of the Uranium-238 being struck by neutrons would be to transmute some of it into Plutonium-239, said Morgan. Plutonium has long been described as the most toxic radioactive substance, and Plutonium-239 has a half life of 24,100 years, thus once created it takes some 240,000 years for its radioactivity to decline to 0.1%.
"I don't understand how they are going to overcome the emissions problems and how the shielding issue [of passenger irradiation with neutrons and gamma rays] would be handled", said Morgan. As to a crash of an airplane with atomic engines, "It would be a real mess. You'd have lethal material spread all over the place."
The patent lists Boeing, based in Chicago, as 'applicant' and the 'inventors' of the proposed engine as: Frank O. Chandler, director of Advanced Vehicle Subsystems and Technologies at Boeing's The Phantom Works; Boeing engineer James S. Herzberg; and Robert J. Budica, who has been Boeing's director of strategic technologies.
"As of now", says Business Insider, "the engine lives only in patent documents. The technology is so-out-there that it's unclear if anyone will ever use it."
In a 1960 book, Nuclear Flight: The United States Air Force Program for Atomic Jets, Missiles, and Rockets, edited by Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Kenneth F. Glantz, then Air Force Deputy Chief of Staff for Development, Lt. General Roscoe C. Wilson, spoke of nuclear bombers with "unlimited range" being on "missions of several days duration."
Nukespeak by Stephen Hilgartner, Richard C. Bell and Rory O'Connor, published in 1983 with a new e-book edition in 2011, relates: "Atomic-powered airplanes would make long-distance bombing easier, since the planes were expected to be able to circle the globe without refueling."
As late as 1959, it notes, the Joint Chiefs of Staff were assuring Congress of the military potential of nuclear-powered aircraft and urging that they be built. But nixing the program in 1961 - after more than $1 billion in 1950s dollars had been spent - was then Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara who told Congress that an atomic airplane would
" ... expel some fraction of radioactive fission products into the atmosphere, creating an important public relations problem if not an actual physical hazard."
Karl Grossman is professor of journalism at the State University of New York / College at Old Westbury, and the author of 'Cover Up: What You Are Not Supposed to Know About Nuclear Power' and host of the nationally-aired TV program 'EnviroCloseup'.
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