Direct Fusion Drive is a a revolutionary direct-drive, fusion-powered rocket engine. Compact and clean-burning, the Direct Fusion Drive (DFD) can generate controllable power from 1-10 MW with high thrust and high specfic power. Learn more about our research from our blog posts!
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,
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.
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 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!
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 .
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!
 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, 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!
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.
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.
My name is Pavit Hooda, and I was an intern at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory during the summer of 2022. In my time there, I took on the start-up problem of the Direct Fusion Drive (DFD) and developed a compelling solution. A system to power on or re-start the DFD in space is essential for its use, especially in long-duration missions. Therefore, my work has helped us get closer to a space-faring future where the DFD is the means of propulsion for humanity’s missions to the Moon, Mars, and beyond.
The problem at hand was to create an auxiliary power unit that can generate a sufficient amount of power with the use of the Deuterium fuel and liquid Oxygen oxidizer that were on board. The Deuterium is one of the fuels of the fusion within the DFD, and the Oxygen can be recycled from the cabin of the crew. After the power is generated, the objective is to eventually split the deuterium-oxide product back into its constituents for use in their respective areas of the spacecraft. This electrolysis can be done after the fusion core is started and there is a sufficient amount of surplus energy from the DFDs.
The design of the heat engine first begins with the electric pumps that feed the fuel and the oxidizer into the combustion chamber. A turbopump-based feeding system was decided against due to the low mass flow rates that are required to power the DFD. Additionally, the accurate throttle control granted by the use of electric pumps, and the ability to use the batteries on board to spin the pumps, make electric pumps the more viable option. Before the deuterium fuel is fed into the coaxial swirl injector, it is ran across cooling channels surrounding the combustion chamber. This regenerative cooling is performed to heat the deuterium to increase its reactivity and lengthen the lifespan of the combustion chamber by minimizing the effect of the high temperature it is operating at. Additionally, the cooling system provides a healthy temperature gradient for the thermoelectric generation layer that is also wrapped around the combustion chamber. The oxidizer is directly injected into the combustion from its propellant tank.
After passing through the injector and combusting in a successful ignition, the deuterium-oxide steam exhaust is directed towards a turbine system. The turbine system and the combustion chamber are attached with a flange. The turbine system consists of two sets of blades that are separated by a disk that acts like a stator in a steam turbine. The exhaust is first directed towards a doughnut-shaped casing that allows for the heavy water steam to hit the blades in a direction that is parallel to the blade disk’s central normal axis. The two turbine disks are attached to a common axis that extends outside the turbine system’s casing. The rotation of this axle is then used to generate power with an electric generator. Finally, the steam then exits through a large exhaust manifold tube that directs it to a temporary storage container. This design of a heat engine would result in producing 3 MJ, the sufficient amount of power to start up a PFRC, in about 10 minutes. An illustration of the entire design of this system can be seen below.
In the pursuit to study the feasibility of this engine, various parts were selected. A 600 W electric generator that matches both the power and mass specifications of the heat engine was found and is shown below.
Additionally, the turbine casing in the heat engine matches the geometry and function of a turbocharger that is found as a component in some car engines. The part is displayed below.
A significant amount of extensive work still needs to be put into the creation of this heat engine. However, I truly believe that this work presents itself as a good first step in the right direction towards this engine’s small but significant role in humanity’s journey to the Moon, Mars, and beyond.
We received a comment on LinkedIn about how fast the “Mars run” could be achieved with a sustained 1 G acceleration. The reader suggested this could be done in 40 hours. What engine parameters would be required to make that happen?
Using a simple constant-acceleration, straight-line analysis, you can indeed compute that the trip should take only a couple of days. Assuming a Mars conjunction, the straight distance is about 0.5 AU. At this speed you can ignore the gravitational effects of the sun and so the distance is a simple integral of the acceleration: d = 1/2 at2. The ship accelerates for half the time then decelerates, and the change in velocity is ΔV = at. Combining the two halves of the trip, at an acceleration of 9.8 m/s2, the trip takes about 2.1 days.
% straight line: distance s = 0.5*at^2
acc = 9.8; % accel, m/s^2
aU = Constant('au'); % km
dF = 0.5*aU*1000; % distance, m
t = sqrt(4*dF/acc); % time for dF, s
dV = t*acc/1000; % km/s
fprintf('\nAccel: %g m/s^2\n',acc)
fprintf('Time: %g days\n',t/86400)
fprintf('Delta-V: %g km/s\n',dV)
Accel: 9.8 m/s^2
Time: 2.02232 days
Delta-V: 1712.34 km/s
Now, your ship mass includes your payload, your engine, your fuel tanks and your fuel. Assume we want to move a payload of 50,000 kg, somewhat larger than the NASA Deep Space Habitat. The engine mass is computed using a parameter called the specific power, in units of W/kg. The fuel tank mass is scaled from the fuel mass, typically adding another 10%. When we run the numbers, we find that the engine needs to have a specific power of about 1×108 W/kg, and an exhaust velocity of about 5000 km/s results in the maximum payload fraction. We can compute the fuel mass and trajectory using our MassFuelElectricConstantUE and StraightLineConstantAccel toolbox functions:
The power needed is… over 2.8 terawatts! That’s about equal to the total power output of the entire Earth, which had an installed power capacity of 2.8 terawatts in 2020. And the engine would need to weigh less than 30 tons, about the size of a loaded tractor-trailer truck. For comparison, we estimate a Direct Fusion Drive would produce about 1 MW per ton, which is a specific power of 1×103 W/kg. So, this is why you see us trying to design an engine that can do the Mars transfer in 90 days and not 3 days!
Now, there is another consideration here. Namely, constant acceleration at 1 G is not the optimal solution by any means. The optimal solution for a fast, light transfer is actually a linear acceleration profile. This knowledge goes way back: 1961! Here’s a reference:
Leitmann, George. "Minimum Transfer Time for a Power-Limited Rocket." Journal of Applied Mechanics 28, no. 2 (June 1, 1961): 171-78. https://doi.org/10.1115/1.3641648.
This would mean that the engine changes its exhaust velocity during trip, passing through infinity at the switch point. We compute this in our “straight-line, power-limited” or SLPL function series. While this can’t be done physically, even an approximation of this with a variable impulse thruster will one day be more efficient than constant acceleration or thrust. How much better? The power needed is nearly 1/2 the constant acceleration solution, 1.5 TW, and the specific power needed is reduced by half, to 5.6×107 W/kg. However, those are still insane numbers!
mD = 80000; % dry mass: engine, tanks, payload
m0 = 1.5*mD; % wet mass: with fuel
tF = 3*86400;
vF = 0;
[Pj,A,tau] = SLPLFindPower( aU, tF, vF, mD, m0 );
mTank = 0.05*(m0-mD); % tanks, scale with fuel
mLeft = mD-mTank;
mEngine = mLeft - mPayload;
disp('Straight-line Power-limited (linear accel)')
fprintf('Engine power is %g GW\n',Pj*1e-9);
fprintf('Engine mass is %g kg\n',mEngine);
fprintf('Payload mass is %g kg\n',mPayload);
fprintf('sigma is %g W/kg\n',Pj/mEngine);
SLPLTrajectory( A, tau, Pj, m0, tF )
Straight-line Power-limited (linear accel)
Engine power is 1573.26 GW
Engine mass is 28000 kg
Payload fraction is 0.416667
sigma is 5.6188e+07 W/kg
The trajectory and engine output are plotted below. The linear acceleration results in a curved velocity plot, while in the constant acceleration case, we saw a linear velocity plot. You can see the spike in exhaust velocity at the switch point, which occurs exactly at the halfway point.
After all, who needs 1G gravity when the trip only takes 2 days?
For even more fun though, we computed a planar trajectory to Mars using the parameters we found – just to confirm the straight-line analysis is in fact a good approximation. This figure shows the paths the optimization takes:
It is in fact approximately a straight line!
In reality though, these power system numbers are not even remotely plausible with any technology we are aware of today. That’s why we are designing engines to reduce the Mars trip time to 90 days from 8 or 9 months – still a big improvement!
The Princeton Field Reversed Configuration-2 (PFRC-2) upgrade in field and frequency is underway. We are currently installing new coils around the experiment to increase the magnetic fields and new capacitors to help lower the RF operating frequency – all to reach our target milestones of measuring ion heating! This is an essential next step in our development of Direct Fusion Drive.
The power supplies are stacked in their rack, ready to supply power to the belt coils. The supplies must be programmed to energize for each pulse as they are not cooled and the coils would otherwise overheat. The belt coil holder component on the right was 3D printed at PPPL.
The new 2 nF capacitors, shown above (left image), must be enclosed in a custom copper box that will be part of the tank circuit of PFRC-2. Each component must be carefully designed, including the lengths of the connecting cables, for us to get the right frequency without exceeding voltage limits of the materials.
The above image is of the cable that will connect the tank circuit and the PFRC-2. These cables are very robust, and stiff so that the layout must be carefully planned. We will continue to post updates as we work towards that 2 MHz frequency milestone!
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. More information of the Princeton Fusion Systems-GAMOW project can be found here.
In the picture below, we are registering at the registration desk at the ARPA-E Innovation Summit at Denver. More pictures of the event can be seen on the ARPA-E Summit website.
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!