Anyone interested in technology is aware that humans have been working toward commercial fusion power for the past 50 years or so.
During that time, optimists have been assuring us that abundant electricity from fusion generators is only about 20 years away. And yet, we find ourselves today having achieved no notable breakthroughs in the project — just incremental progress, the result of decades of effort and billions spent.
Creating fusion power is hard. (Notwithstanding the prediction, courtesy of Back to the Future, that “Mr. Fusion” motors will be available to drive DeLoreans — and, presumably, other cars — by 2015.)
Still, the grinding slog toward solving the most challenging technological problem ever undertaken by science and engineering — reproducing the power of a star on the surface of the Earth — is starting to present the glimmer of a payoff. And that payoff may be only 7 years away.
What is on the horizon is not the elusive fusion-powered generator attached to the commercial power grid but rather a sophisticated rocket engine that could power the first manned flight to Mars. Utilizing a Fusion Drive Rocket (FDR) system, the trip to the red planet could be completed in 30-90 days, rather than the 8 months it took the Curiosity rover to arrive there.
Such a fusion-based system would make current rockets powered by solid or liquid propellant — and even ion drives — as obsolete for space travel as steam power is for cars. And it would make the rest of the solar system reachable on a practical basis.
The breakthrough propulsion system would be delivered by a team at the University of Washington that has received a special $600,000 funding award from NASA. All of the components of the FDR system have been successfully tested in the lab. The task now is to build a working prototype.
As you may be aware, the problem with fusion power so far is that it has always taken more energy to initiate and contain the process than the fusion reaction itself generates — a net energy loss. However, part of the innovation behind the FDR system is that the electrical power needed to generate the magnetic field that controls the fusion reaction could be handled by solar energy alone. That is, solar panels generating power from the sun would be enough to trigger the artificial “sun” of the fusion process that in turn would drive a reaction that propels the spacecraft.
If the FDR succeeds, it would be not only a significant milestone in harnessing fusion power, it could lead to voyages in space an order of magnitude beyond what is practical today.
“Using existing rocket fuels, it’s nearly impossible for humans to explore much beyond Earth,” said the lead researcher for the project, John Slough, a University of Washington research associate professor of aeronautics and astronautics. “We are hoping to give us a much more powerful source of energy in space that could eventually lead to making interplanetary travel commonplace.”
So maybe we really are making progress toward the application of fusion power. Which is good news, because not only would it lead to enhanced space exploration, practical fusion generators could be the key to the survival of our civilization.
Want to learn more about the sophisticated engineering involved? Check out InformIT (Pearson Eduction).