Final Titan Aircraft Paper Published in Acta Astronautica

The final version of our paper, “Nuclear Fusion Powered Titan Aircraft,” by Mr. Michael Paluszek, Ms. Annie Price, Ms. Zoe Koniaris, Dr. Christopher Galea, Ms. Stephanie Thomas, Dr. Samuel Cohen, and Ms. Rachel Stutz is now available, open access, on the Acta Astronautica website. As described in our earlier post, the paper discusses a mission to Titan using the Direct Fusion Drive on the transfer vehicle, and a Princeton Field Reversed Configuration reactor to power an aircraft, that could fly around Titan for years. The reactor allows for high-power instruments, some of which were first proposed for the NASA Jupiter Icy Moon Orbiter Mission. The paper was first presented at IAC 2022 in Paris.

Two key figures were updated from the preprint version of the paper – Figure 11 and Figure 12, showing the power flow and mass breakdown of the PFRC for the electric aircraft. The earlier figures were from a larger version of the engine. The final engine design produces 0.5 MWe and has a mass of 1006 kg. This is now consistent with the system masses presented in Table 6. Vehicle Power and Payloads.

Universe Today has published an article about our mission study, “What if Titan Dragonfly had a fusion engine?”

PSS appears on the Space Business Podcast to talk about nuclear fusion propulsion

Mike Paluszek and I appear on the newest episode of Space Business Podcast to talk about nuclear fusion propulsion, Direct Fusion Drive, and the Princeton Field-Reversed Configuration (PFRC) concept!

We had a great conversation with the host of this podcast, Rafael Roettgen, who asked us thoughtful questions. In this episode, we discuss topics such as: the future of space propulsion, the history and benefits of field-reversed configurations and how they compare with other fusion reactor concepts, mass and power budget considerations of a fusion rocket, and the road ahead for research and development to get us to a prototype for space. We additionally talk about terrestrial (on earth) applications of the PFRC concept as a globally-deployable power plant for remote areas and look forward to even more futuristic space concepts that could follow after the PFRC.

You can access this episode on podcast platforms including Apple Podcasts and Spotify as well as directly on their website. Enjoy!

Our Titan Mission Paper preprint is now online in Acta Astronautica

Our IAC paper on a fusion-powered Titan mission is now available in preprint on Acta Astronautica online, with the final version to come soon! Our mission concept utilizes two PFRC reactors: one configured as a Direct Fusion Drive rocket for the journey to Titan, and a second configured as a power source for the electric aircraft that will survey Titan. The paper includes a detailed design of the aircraft and analysis of optimal entry into the atmosphere and landing on the moon’s surface.

https://doi.org/10.1016/j.actaastro.2023.04.029

Fusion-propelled transfer vehicle shown in orbit around Titan. The transfer vehicle would serve as an orbital science platform and communications relay to Earth. The 2.4 MW fusion reactor provides 1.4 MW of thrust power and 100 kW of electric power.
Fusion-powered electric aircraft for Titan science exploration. The aircraft has six ducted fan engines. The onboard reactor provides 500 kW of electric power.

Crowdfunding for fusion development closing at the end of April

Our crowdfunding opportunity at is scheduled to close at the end of the month. We’ve raised over $100K so far to support fusion development and specifically, the PFRC-2 experiment at Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory as we close in on our ion heating milestone. This is the last two weeks to invest in our raise on SpacedVentures!

Deal closes in 14 days

Producing Terrestrial Power with Helium-3 from Uranus using PFRC/DFD

Our latest paper on DFD applications, “A Fusion-Propelled Transportation System to Produce
Terrestrial Power Using Helium-3 From Uranus”, is now available from AIAA. This paper was part of the Future Flight Propulsion track and AIAA SciTech 2023. For those with AIAA membership, there is a video recording of the presentation as well! Download the paper here.

Our goal with this paper is to create a framework within which we can study the potential cost of electricity produced on Earth using helium-3 mined from Uranus. The scarcity of terrestrial helium-3, along with the radioactivity of methods to breed it, lead to extraterrestrial sources being considered as a means to enable clean helium-3 fusion for grid-scale electricity on Earth.

This paper builds on the work of Bryan Palaszewski who has published numerous papers on mining the atmospheres of the outer planets. Palaszewski’s work assumed fission-based power and propulsion systems, with a much lower (worse) specific power than we anticipate from a PFRC-based Direct Fusion Drive. We consider both transport and mining vehicles that are instead fusion-powered, including a fusion ramjet. This ramjet may be able to be both the mining vehicle and the orbital transfer vehicle to bring the refined helium-3 to the interplanetary transport,

Components of a conceptual fusion-propelled and -powered Uranus atmospheric mining infrastructure

The results allow us to estimate levelized cost of electricity, LCOE, for the electricity produced on Earth as a function of assumed cost of the fusion transports and mining system, cost of the PFRC reactors, amount of helium-3 stored on each transport and numbers of trips per year, etc. You can learn more about LCOE from the NREL website. Uranus is likely the most economical outer planet for mining due to its lower gravity and radiation environment and high concentration of helium in its atmosphere, about 15%. We find that with our set of assumptions, the resulting cost of electricity could potentially be competitive with wind and solar.

Future work will include analysis of the fusion ramjet trajectories between mining and transfer altitudes, and research into sizing a mining payload using membranes and adsorption to separate the helium-3 from the helium, rather than depend on heavy cryogenic techniques.

Bright plasma pulses achieved for various gases at a new frequency in the PFRC-2

We have been operating the Princeton Field-Reversed Configuration-2 (PFRC-2) at the new, lower frequency of 1.8 MHz since mid-November. We have blogged about some developments towards operating at this new frequency including installation of the new capacitors as well as power supplies and holders for the belt coils.

The frequency we describe is that of the rotating magnetic field (RMF) which is generated by four radio-frequency antenna loops surrounding the machine. The RMF is responsible for creating a higher density field-reversed configuration plasma out of an initial lower density seed plasma and for heating the ions and electrons in the plasma.

The video below shows bright plasma pulses of increased density driven by RMF, now in various gases (argon, helium, and hydrogen):

Achieving bright plasma pulses is an important first step in operating at the new RMF frequency. This frequency will be within the range at which we expect ion heating to occur once we finish installation of the belt coils to increase magnetic field. We first observed bright plasma pulses at the new frequency of 1.8 MHz in argon gas due to its lower ionization potential in comparison to that of molecular hydrogen. In the experiment runs following the run with argon, we tuned parameters such as magnetic field, pressure, and seed plasma power until we began to see bright flashes in helium and hydrogen (where there is still a small percentage of argon). We are continuing work on optimizing the bright flashes for these gases.

In the next few months we plan to increase the magnetic field and measure the plasma with the ion energy analyzer built by the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL) for this experiment with support from ARPA-E. This will show us how much plasma heating is happening!

In other good news, our two INFUSE awards with PPPL, which were announced this summer, have finally received all necessary approvals from DOE and are kicking off. Sangeeta and I (Chris) are at the lab helping to run the PFRC-2 experiment every week and will soon be running software simulations for the INFUSE projects. We will be studying plasma stabilization techniques and new antenna configurations, all to maximize plasma heating efficiency!

Stay tuned as we continue to update on our progress with the PFRC-2!

NIF: Net (Scientific) Gain Achieved in Inertial Fusion! What is the impact on PFRC?

The internet was abuzz last week with the news that the National Ignition Facility had achieved that elusive goal: a fusion experiment that achieved net (scientific) energy gain. This facility, which uses 192 lasers to compress a peppercorn-sized pellet of deuterium and tritium, released 3 MJ of energy from 2 MJ of input heat.

We have to use the caveat that this is “scientific” gain because it does not account for the total amount of energy needed to make the laser pulse. As a matter of fact, the lasers require 400 MJ to make those 2 MJ that reach the plasma. If we account for this energy, we can call it the “wall plug” gain or “engineering” gain since it includes all the components needed. This gain for laser-induced fusion is still less than 1%, because the lasers are very inefficient.

Nonetheless, this is great news for all fusion researchers. Since we often get asked: Has anyone achieved net (scientific) gain yet? Now we can say: Yes! It is physically possible to release net energy from a fusing plasma, to get more energy output than direct energy input. This advance has been achieved through various new technology: machine learning to select the best fuel pellets, wringing more energy from the lasers, more exact control over the laser focusing. Modern technology, especially computing for predicting plasma behavior, explains why progress in fusion energy development is now accelerating.

Tokamaks have also come close to net gain, and in fact the JT-60 tokamak achieved conditions that could have produced net gain, if it had used tritium [1].

The reason JT-60 did not use tritium in those shots is very relevant to our fusion approach, the PFRC. Tritium is radioactive, rare, expensive to handle, and releases damaging neutrons during fusion. Tritium is also part of the easiest fusion reaction to achieve in terms of plasma temperature, the deuterium-tritium reaction. It makes sense for fusion experiments to use such a reaction, but this reaction presents many difficulties to a future working power reactor.

The PFRC is being designed to burn deuterium with helium-3, rather than with tritium, precisely to make the engineering of a reactor easier. The deuterium-helium-3 reaction releases no neutrons directly. Some deuterium will fuse with other deuterium to produce neutrons and tritium, but the PFRC is small enough easily expel tritium ash. This results in orders of magnitude less neutrons per square meter reaching the walls. Once we have scientific gain, like the NIF has now demonstrated for laser fusion, we have an easier path to engineering gain — that is, net electricity.

So while the laser fusion milestone doesn’t directly impact our work on the PFRC, it is important to the field. We will continue to follow the progress of all our peers as we work to achieve higher plasma temperatures in our own experiments!

[1] T. Fujita, et al. “High performance experiments in JT-60U reversed shear discharges,” Nuclear Fusion 39 1627 (1999). DOI: 10.1088/0029-5515/39/11Y/302

Annie Price Presents, “Nuclear Fusion Powered Titan Aircraft” at IAC 2022 in Paris France

Annie Price, who was an intern at Princeton Satellite Systems during the summer of 2021, presented our paper, “Nuclear Fusion Powered Titan Aircraft,” at session C4,10-3.5 which was the Joint Session on Advanced and Nuclear Power and Propulsion Systems.

There were many interesting papers. One was on generating electric power in the magnetic nozzle of a pulsed fusion engine. Another was on the reliability of nuclear thermal engines. The lead-off paper was on a centrifugal nuclear thermal engine with liquid fission fuel.

Annie’s paper covered the design of a Titan aircraft that can both do hypersonic entry and operate at subsonic speeds. Her design uses a 1 MWe nuclear fusion power plant based on PFRC and six electric propeller engines.

She discussed the aerodynamic design, why Titan is so interesting and how the available power would enable new scientific studies of Titan. Annie also described how a PFRC rocket engine or power plant operates. She included a slide on our latest results.

The paper was well received. She had a couple of good questions after her talk and engaged in interesting discussions after the session. Great job Annie!

Installation of the new capacitors in the Princeton Field-Reversed Configuration-2

Further upgrades of the Princeton Field Reversed Configuration-2 (PFRC-2) are underway with the goal of achieving the milestone of ion heating. The PFRC-2 is predicted to have substantial ion heating once the RF antenna frequency is lowered and the magnetic field is increased. To lower the RF frequency, we have installed additional capacitors in the tank circuit of PFRC-2. The picture below shows three capacitors, each with capacitance of 2 nanoFarads (2 nF), installed in a custom-built copper box.

The copper box is also shown in the bottom part of the image below, where it will be connected with a robust cable to the top box, which is called the tuning box. The tuning box is an aluminum box with one fixed capacitor and two tunable capacitors which can be adjusted to change the resonance frequency of the circuit.

Changes have also been made to the inside of the tuning box in order to prevent electrical arcing, which is a common issue when working with high-power and high-voltage circuits. To help prevent arcing, conical structures of brass have been fabricated and installed. The brass structure is shown alone in the first image below and is shown enveloping the cable connection in the second image below. The shape of these structures allows a better spread of the charge in the tuning box so as to lower the chances of electrical breakdown. Taking these preventative design decisions is key to ensuring reliable operation once the upgraded system is running.

PFRC Fusion Article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

This is a really excellent article on nuclear fusion, “Small-scale fusion tackles energy, space applications,” by M. Mitchell Waldrop, written January 28, 2020, Vol 117, No. 4 for the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS). The article quotes team Dr. Cohen and Mr. Paluszek and provides an excellent and technically accurate discussion of FRCs, heating methods, and fusion fuel physics.

PNAS has many interesting articles!