We will be at the 2022 ARPA-E Summit in Denver, CO next week – May 23 to 25 – representing our two ARPA-E programs, WIDE BAND GAP SEMICONDUCTOR AMPLIFIERS FOR PLASMA HEATING AND CONTROL and Next-Generation PFRC. The post on our Princeton Fusion Systems website has links to our marketing and technical documents:
Our ARPA-E funding has allowed us to increase the magnetic field and RF power in the PFRC-2 experiment in pursuit of hotter plasma, a key precursor to demonstrating the conditions needed for Direct Fusion Drive!
The recordings of this webinar from February 15-16, 2022, are now available on YouTube. Each segment is two hours long. Ms. Thomas’ presentation is in Part 2 at about 30:30.
Organized by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), this webinar focuses on nuclear systems for space exploration. It gives an overview and historical perspective on the status of development in this area and showcases the ways in which nuclear systems can be used for space exploration, as well as discuss possible future innovations in the field.
Part 1 Agenda:
Progress towards space nuclear power objectives | Mr Vivek Lall (General Atomics Global Corporation)
Developing the VASIMR® Engine Historical Perspective, Present Status and Future Plans | Mr Franklin R. Chang Díaz (Ad Astra Rocket Company)
Application of Space Nuclear Power Sources in Moon and Deep Space Exploration Missions in China | Mr Hui Du (Beijing Institute of Spacecraft System Engineering)
Part 2 Agenda:
Promises and Challenges of Nuclear Propulsion for Space Travel | Mr William J Emrich (NASA)
Fusion Propulsion and Power for Advanced Space Missions | Ms Stephanie Thomas (Princeton Satellite Systems) – at time 30:30
NASA Investments in Space Nuclear Fission Technology | Mr Anthony Calomino (NASA)
This webinar hosted by the IAEA, the International Atomic Energy Agency, is coming up this week, Feb. 15-16, 2022.
The exploration of space requires power at many stages, not only for the initial launch of the space vehicle, but also for various house loads such as instrumentation and controls, communication systems, maintaining the operating environment for the space mission’s essential hardware, etc. Nuclear can provide long-term electrical power in space. Nuclear systems can be configured in several ways for use in space exploration.
Atoms for Space: Nuclear Systems for Space Exploration
PSS VP Stephanie Thomas will give a talk during this webinar, Fusion Propulsion and Power for Advanced Space Missions.
Hi! I’m Paige, and I’m an undergraduate at Princeton interested in physics and science communications. This January, I got to work as an intern here at Princeton Satellite Systems. These past few weeks, I’ve been writing about the fusion-related projects PSS is working on, such as their Princeton Field-Reversed Configuration (PFRC) fusion reactor concept and plans for a space propulsion engine.
My first task was to write a four-page report on the PFRC, including its design, market demand, and development timeline. I knew very little about fusion coming into this internship, so first I had to learn all I could about the process that powers the sun and has the potential to supply the earth with clean, practically limitless energy.
Various types of fusion reactors are under development by companies and coalitions all over the world; they differ in the reactors they use and their methods of confining and heating plasma. ITER, for instance, is an example of a tokamak under construction in France; it uses superconducting magnets to confine plasma so that the reaction of tritium and deuterium can occur.
The PFRC, currently in the second stage of experiments at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, uses radio frequency waves to create a rotating magnetic field that spins and heats the plasma inside, which is contained by closed magnetic field lines in a field-reversed configuration resulting from the opposition of a background solenoidal magnetic field to the field created by the rotating plasma current. The fusion reaction within the PFRC is that of helium-3 and deuterium, which offers multiple advantages over reactions involving tritium. Compared with other fusion reactors, the PFRC is incredibly compact. It will be about the size of a minivan, 1/1000th the size of ITER; this compactness makes it ideal for portable or remote applications.
After learning about the design and market applications of the PFRC, I created a four page brochure about PFRC, writing for a general audience. I included the basics of the reactor design and its advantages over other reactors, as well as market estimates and the research and development timeline. I went on to write four page brochures about PSS’s Direct Fusion Drive engine, which will use PFRC technology for space propulsion purposes, and GAMOW, the program under which PSS is collaborating on developing various power electronics for fusion reactors.
These past few weeks have been quite informative to me, and I realized how much I loved writing about science and technology! I learned all about fusion, and I especially loved learning the details of the PFRC reactor design. To summarize the design, research, and development of the PFRC and other technologies within four page flyers, I had to learn how to write about technology and research comprehensively and engagingly for a general audience, which improved my science communication skills.
People from all over the country called and emailed in their questions about fusion and fusion-propelled spaceflight, and we had a great discussion! David has been running this educational program for 20 years and there are almost 4000 archived episodes covering a wide range of space topics. Author David Brin, whom I met during my NASA NIAC fellowship, is going to be on next week!
So have listen and add to the conversation on The Space Show website!
The Space subcommittee of the Fusion Industry Association, of which we are a member, has prepared a new white paper recommending government funding for a dedicated fusion propulsion development program, styled similarly to ARPA-E and DARPA.
The next space race is not simply into orbit; it is to the Moon, Mars, and beyond. The global competition is fierce, and the stakes are high—from landing the first humans on Mars to harvesting the limitless wealth of asteroids, and much more. Fusion propulsion is the best path to winning this “Deep Space Race.”
Fusion Energy for Space Propulsion, FIA, June 2021
The goal is to provide funding not just for “paper studies,” but enough funding to build real hardware and start to test fusion propulsion concepts. We want the US to remain competitive in the upcoming Deep Space Race – building a human presence on the Moon, and then Mars, and beyond. Direct Fusion Drive is directly applicable to near-term, modestly sized fusion propulsion!
If you want to express your support for government funding of fusion propulsion, contact your Representatives and Senators!
PSS just finished up a research contract for NASA in which we discovered some surprising and useful ways in which Low Temperature Superconductors (LTS) may be more suitable than High Temperature Superconductors (HTS) for making light, efficient electric motors.
In short, they’re cheaper. They’re much, much easier to design, manufacture, and use. Unlike HTS, it’s easy to make LTS electrical joints that are just as superconducting as the coils. LTS experience less heating when their internal current is changed. Crucially, you can make a “persistent switch” in which an LTS magnet is charged once and the current is trapped in the coil, persisting without the need to constantly supply current. Our LTS of choice is NbTi, the “workhorse” of the LTS family.
Interested in knowing more? Then read on!
There are several big pushes toward electric aircraft. Air travel accounts for 2.5% of our carbon emissions. So what’s preventing us from electrifying aircraft like we did with cars? The problem is weight. An extra pound of motor or batteries costs much more in an aircraft than it does in a car.
That being said, there are dozens of research groups, companies, and agencies working on hybrid electric and fully electric aircraft. There are even serious advantages to having the freedom to place propulsion units (motors rather than jet turbines) wherever you want within the aircraft, concepts called Boundary Layer Ingestion and Distributed Electric Propulsion. The aerodynamics is complicated, but the gist is that you can get huge emissions savings even if you’re still using jet fuel and turbines, if those turbines are powering lots of little motors rather than one big jet engine.
As we said earlier, all parts of the propulsion powertrain need to be lightweight in order to make a practical electric aircraft. For decades now, superconductivity has been known as a phenomenon with the potential to decrease the weight and increase the efficiency of motors. The idea goes back to the 1960s, with several experimental LTS rotors being tested in the 1970s and 1980s before the programs ended.
But what happened in the 1980s that shifted focus away from LTS motors? The answer is the discovery of HTS. On paper, HTS looks wonderful. It is superconducting at more achievable temperatures, ~100 K versus ~8 K for LTS. It can create magnetic fields much higher than LTS. Plus, it can carry much more current than LTS, meaning the same motor can weigh significantly less if made of HTS.
Yet despite research programs going back to the 1980s and continuing today, there are still no HTS motors on the market. Why is that?
The LTS difference
It turns out HTS is expensive and extremely hard to use. A magnet made of HTS would cost 20 times more than one made of LTS. HTS is weak, and when it’s under strain it can’t carry as much current. It can’t be flexed in one direction. To join two cables of HTS together into one superconducting piece, you have to grow more superconductor between them; you can’t just snap them together like extension cords.
On the other hand, LTS magnets have matured since the 1980s. Most hospitals now have an LTS magnet in the form of their MRI machine. Thousands of tons of LTS are produced yearly. LTS is cheaper, stronger, more flexible, and easier to work with. Its so-called AC losses (heating that occurs when the current is changed) are lower. Two LTS cables can be joined together to make one long LTS cable.
This latter property allows the so-called persistent mode of LTS magnets. In this mode, no external current is required to power the magnet. You charge the magnet up once, then you can disconnect it and walk away. Our LTS magnet vendor, Superconducting Systems, Inc. (SSI) of Billerica MA, has magnets that have sat persistently charged for decades.
How this affects a motor design
As part of our Phase I NASA SBIR, we designed a motor using LTS. The motor design targets small aircraft like Cessna Denali or regional airliners like Beechcraft 1900. The motor’s output power is 1 MW. The total target system weight is 100 kg. The target efficiency is 99.5%.
One of the challenges of using superconducting materials is keeping them cold. Because of the low AC losses and persistent mode of LTS, we were able to cut the heat leak down from dozens of Watts to less than 1 Watt. We were able to completely eliminate the charging subsystem and cryocooler of HTS designs. We have identified four innovative technologies that are enabled by and instrumental to the use of LTS in motors. We will be developing this technology in the coming years.
One of our innovations came from the significantly reduced heat leak into the cold rotor. Rather than use heavy, expensive cryocoolers to cool the rotor, the design suddenly came into the realm of Liquid Helium (LHe) reservoirs. Our SSI partners liken it to the difference between a refrigerator and a cooler. Use the refrigerator (cryocooler) when keeping food cold for weeks or months, but use a cooler (LHe) when making a day trip to the beach.
The journey of the LTS motor has just begun. Work continues at PSS. Contact us for more information or partnering opportunities.
Watch this space! Some day soon, perhaps sooner than you think, you could be flying across the country in an aircraft as renewably powered as your electric car.
Princeton Satellite Systems has been in a leader in renewable energy with its SunStation home solar power system with battery backup. We introduced this product back in 2013. SunStation has lithium-ion phosphate batteries, the most stable and reliable batteries for home use. The core of the system is the Outback Inverter that seamlessly switches from grid power to internal power.
The solar system in the installation produces 7.3 kW of power, much more than the house needed for electric power including charging a Nissan Leaf and Toyota Prius Prime. The heating and air conditioning system was nearing its end-of-life so we decided to replace it with a geothermal heat pump. A heat pump is essentially an air conditioner that can both reject heat to a source and absorb heat from a source. The problem with both is that when the outside temperature is high, for rejecting heat, and low, for absorbing heat, the system loses efficiency. Modern air-source heat pumps are very efficient but do need backup resistance heating in some climates.
A ground source heat pump, or geothermal heat pump, uses the ground as the medium for absorbing or rejecting heat. The option we chose, due to land constraints, is to have two wells several hundred feet deep as the source. Alternatives are trenching, or a pond if you have one in your yard. The ground is always at around 50 deg F. The system was sized so that it rarely, if ever, needs resistance heating.
The geothermal system, which is made by WaterFurnace, was installed by Princeton Air. No changes to the SunStation were needed. The core geothermal system is shown below. The valves to the ground loops are in the foreground and the geothermal system is on the left.
The lines that run to the outside ground loops are shown below.
The system has a preheater for the (still gas) hot water heater. The gas water heater was less than a year old, so it didn’t make sense to replace it. The preheater is an electric hot water heater that does not have the heating coils connected.
The SunStation is shown below. The Outback inverter is on the bottom left. The boxes on top provide arc protection, which is now included in the inverter. The batteries on on the right and the battery management electronics between the inverter and the battery cabinet.
The well digging was quite a project. This picture shows the drilling rig.
This second picture shows the yard after the drilling was complete. Drilling took three days total.
The following system shows the SunStation with geothermal in operation. The Prius Prime is charging which is most of the load. The system is still sending considerable power to the grid. On average the house powers itself and two other houses.
Geothermal, with solar and battery backup is the ideal solution for new homes and for renovations to existing homes. There is no reason to even have a gas hookup anymore. Contact us at SunStation for more information
The Living Universe is both a feature film for IMAX theaters and now a four-part documentary series. We blogged about our interviews in January and the series is now available on Curiosity Stream, a service dedicated to documentaries! Episode 2,”The Explorers” features a segment on DFD narrated by PSS engineer Stephanie Thomas, in addition to discussing plasma and antimatter propulsion. Here is an article about the series from Broadway World. You need to sign up for an account on Curiosity Stream to watch, which is free for 7 days and then $3 per month.
“The Encedalus Mission” by internationally best-selling hard science fiction author Brandon Q. Morris was originally written in German, and features the DFD as the propulsion technology on a mission to study newly detected life in the Saturn system; an array of six DFDs power the spaceship. Early reviews are favorable! The book is available in paperback or for Kindle.
Send us a comment and tell us what you think if you watch the show or read the book!