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Fusion-Powered Fighters and Bombers: Coming Soon to the Air Force?

Lockheed Martin Aeronautics Company - Fort Worth- Beth Steel Document Israeli Rollout Ceremony AS-1-Beauty Shots 6/21/16 FP161141 16-04470 Charlotte Durham AFF2

The U.S. Air Force – just like any military service – is always looking for the next big jump in technology to give them an edge over the enemy. Some are saying now that fusion-powered bombers and fighters could be a quantum leap in capabilities. But now realistic is that? Could it really happen? What would that mean for the U.S. Air Force and the U.S. military overall? 

Back in 2018, Lockheed Martin filed a patent for something it called a “plasma confinement system” — a device small enough to fit inside the fuselage of an F-16 Fighting Falcon that is capable of managing internal temperatures 10 times hotter than the center of the sun.

This scalable device was designed to play a vital role in containing an approach to power production that some still consider science fiction: nuclear fusion. Now, recent advancements in the field are making fusion power look not just possible, but potentially even feasible. In the coming years, fusion could not only change everything about the way the world fights wars… it could even change the way humanity approaches conflict itself.

And it all might start within the shadowy confines of the Pentagon’s black budget.

Nuclear aircraft aren’t a new concept

As soon as mankind realized it could produce huge amounts of power by splitting the atom, efforts began to incorporate this new concept into just about everything, including airplanes. Using just a small bit of fuel, nuclear power could allow fighters, bombers, or reconnaissance platforms to stay airborne practically indefinitely. But despite several programs aimed at fielding such an aircraft propulsion system, atom-splitting fission reactors simply offered greater risk than reward when hurtling through the air at 50,000 feet.

Fission efforts did find a useful home in naval applications, with programs leading to today’s nuclear-powered submarines and supercarriers. But aviation efforts like Project Pluto’s nuclear-powered SLAM missile or Convair’s NB-36 nuclear-powered bomber, on the other hand, now come off as a bit crazy.

Project Pluton’s Slam missile could have flown for thousands of miles, dropping hydrogen bombs and spewing radiation all along the way while producing such an intense amount of noise that scientists working on the program believed the soundwaves alone would kill anyone the missile passed over. The NB-36 could also stay airborne practically indefinitely to serve as an ongoing nuclear deterrent… but any crash or mishap could have led to an environmental disaster.

Today, the only publicly disclosed program, of any nation, aimed at fielding a fission-powered airborne platform is Russia’s 9M730 Burevestnik, or Skyfall missile. Despite a great deal of hype, however, it seems no closer to fruition today than when it was announced in 2018. And as if to prove the inherent danger of this enterprise, five scientists from the Russian Federal Nuclear Center were killed in 2019 in a mishap that was reportedly related to the ongoing effort.

Fusion: Nuclear power without the drawbacks

Fission and aircraft don’t mix. But fusion could be another story entirely. Nuclear fusion could really be thought of as the opposite of the fission process leveraged by today’s nuclear power plants and weapon systems. Both are physical processes that produce energy from atoms, but while fission produces massive amounts of energy by splitting a larger atom into two or more smaller onesfusion joins two or more lighter atoms into a larger one.

Fission power plants have seen a resurgence in public interest in recent years as a viable option for energy production to work alongside other environmentally friendly initiatives for good reason. While fission plants do produce radioactive waste that can remain dangerous for millions of years, it remains millions of times more efficient as a means of power production than chemical-reaction-based approaches like burning coal.

While nuclear power may not deserve the fear it’s often met with, it does however come with a risk: the fission process must be actively cooled in order to prevent a runaway reaction that could lead to a meltdown and environmental catastrophes like those we’ve seen in Chornobyl and Fukushima.

Fusion, on the other hand, has no potential for meltdown and while it does produce some radioactive waste, its radioactive half-life is just 12 years. It’s also predicted to be three-four times more efficient than even fission. Fusion reactors can be powered by two hydrogen isotopes called deuterium and tritium — the former of which is incredibly common in seawater. In fact, according to the U.S. Department of Energy, the amount of deuterium found in a single gallon of seawater could produce the same amount of energy as 300 gallons of gasoline. Tritium is tougher to get your hands on. Naturally occurring tritium is exceedingly rare, but it can actually be produced by a fusion reactor using enriched lithium.

Scientists have been able to create fusion reactions in laboratory settings plenty of times in the past, but it’s hard to maintain the energy required to superheat the reactor’s fuel to temperatures in the millions of degrees Celcius, as well as the means to contain this superheated reaction. The core of a fusion reactor houses high-temperature plasma that must remain incredibly hot for the fusion process to work, which means having to pump a great deal of energy into keeping the plasma hot enough.

To date, it still takes more power to produce a fusion reaction than can be drawn from it — but recent developments suggest the decade-spanning chase for efficient fusion could soon be at an end.

Last year, the Joint European Torus (JET) fusion reactor set a new world record by producing 59 megajoules of sustained fusion energy over 5 seconds.

“The record is that not only we have produced fusion, measurable fusion, and we have produced about twice as much as we did in 1997,” JET Senior Manager Fernanda Rimini told Newsweek in September.

“But we produced it over five seconds, so it’s quite steady, it’s quite long, it’s as long as we can because the experiment really is not designed to last for much longer.”

The magnetic confinement systems used by most fusion reactors come in at least four forms, the most common of which are tokamaks, based on a design pioneered by Soviet physicists Igor Tamm and Andrei Sakharov in the 1950s, and stellarators, which were first invented by Lyman Spitzer at Princeton University in 1951. There are also inertial confinement system approaches to confining the superheated plasma that fuels fusion reactors, but for the sake of simplicity, we’ll leave it at that.

Lockheed Martin’s fusion patents include miniaturized reactors small enough to fit inside an F-16

In 2018, Lockheed Martin was awarded a patent under the somewhat unassuming name of, “Encapsulating Magnetic Fields for Plasma Confinement.” The fusion device it describes would use superconductors to produce a magnetic field that can house super-heated plasma within the confines of its reaction chamber 2,000 times better than any existing fusion system. It serves as the backbone of Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works’ Compact Fusion Reactor, or CFR. According to the patent, their design allows for the construction of much smaller fusion reactors than previously thought to be possible, allowing for not only expedited development but a much broader range of potential applications.

“Fusion reactor 110 has novel magnetic field configurations that exhibit global MED stability, has a minimum of particle losses via open field lines, uses all of the available magnetic field energy, and has a greatly simplified engineering design. The efficient use of magnetic fields means the disclosed embodiments may be an order of magnitude smaller than typical systems , which greatly reduces capital costs for power plants. In addition, the reduced costs allow the concept to be developed faster as each design cycle may be completed much quicker than typical system. In general, the disclosed embodiments have a simpler, more stable design with far less physics risk than existing systems.”

U.S. Patent US20180047462A1, “Encapsulating Magnetic Fields for Plasma Confinement

The ratio of the plasma volume contained within the reactor to the magnetic energy density within it is known within fusion circles as the Beta limit. Most systems today have a beta limit of between .01 and .05 (between one and five percent). The system being developed by Lockheed’s Skunk Works outlined in the patent, on the other hand, is expected to offer a beta limit of 1. That’s as in 100 percent.

“The system is therefore regulated by a self-tuning feedback mechanism, whereby the farther out the plasma goes, the stronger the magnetic field pushes back to contain it. The CFR is expected to have a beta limit ratio of one.” Dr. Thomas McGuire, head of the Skunk Works’ Compact Fusion Project

According to the Skunk Works, a single reactor using their confinement system could run continuously for a year on just 25 pounds of fuel while producing roughly 100 megawatts of power — enough to power the homes of 100,000 people. Potential applications for such a device are staggering, and the Skunk Works patent includes somewhat obvious uses like powering an aircraft carrier as well as more novel ones, like using containerized fusion trucks to provide emergency energy to cities following natural disasters.

But perhaps the most intriguing inclusion in the patent is a reactor made small enough to be housed within the fuselage of an F-16 Fighting Falcon.

“It is desirable to provide a compact fusion reactor for an aircraft that greatly expands the range and operating time of the aircraft. The following describes an encapsulated fusion reactor for providing these and other desired benefits associated with compact fusion reactors.”

U.S. Patent US20180047462A1, “Encapsulating Magnetic Fields for Plasma Confinement

In 2018, Lockheed Martin predicted that it would take five years to develop the reactor and another five to build one capable of powering a small city. They’ve been rather quiet about the effort since, but if that timeline holds true, we’re about a year away from the technology proving itself viable.

How to power an aircraft with fusion

In order to understand how nuclear fusion could power an aircraft’s propulsion, it might first help to understand how conventional turbojet propulsion systems already work. Obviously, aircraft propulsion is an exacting science, but the basic premise behind it is pretty simple.

Modern turbojet engines (or jet engines, as we tend to call them) suck in air from the front of the engine and compress it until it’s usually between three and 12 times the density that it started with. Fuel is then added to the compressed air and ignited. The newly ignited air/fuel mixture usually reaches temperatures of between 1,100°F to 1,300° F as it passes through a turbine (which drives the compressor) on its way out of a nozzle to produce thrust.

Turbofan engines work using a similar premise, but incoming air is split into two different flows: one passes through the fan and continues into a core compressor before being mixed with fuel and ignited before flowing out the nozzle. The rest of the air bypasses that internal engine and simply passes through the propeller, slightly increasing its velocity and adding a bit more thrust as it passes through. These engines are common in commercial airliners as well as on heavy payload bombers like the B-52 Stratofortress.

According to the Lockheed Martin patent, the combustor found in the existing turbojet or turbofan engines could be replaced by heat exchangers to produce the same thrust without the need for combustible fuels.

“Typically, a turbofan utilizes a combustor that burns jet fuel in order to heat intake air, thereby producing thrust. In aircraft system 200, however, the combustors of turbofans 230 have been replaced by heat exchangers that utilize hot coolant 240 provided by one or more fusion reactors 110 in order to heat the intake air.”

U.S. Patent US20180047462A1, “Encapsulating Magnetic Fields for Plasma Confinement

Fusion could change everything about aviation

The truth is, fusion power could change everything about everything, but in the short term, it could revolutionize how America approaches aircraft design and operation.

This may provide numerous advantages over typical turbofans. For example, by allowing turbofans 230 to operate without combustors that burn jet fuel, the range of aircraft 101 may be greatly extended. In addition, by greatly reducing or eliminating the need for jet fuel, the operating cost of aircraft 101 may be significantly reduced.”

U.S. Patent US20180047462A1, “Encapsulating Magnetic Fields for Plasma Confinement

Aircraft could go their entire service lives without ever needing to refuel, and while that might sound convenient to those who think of refueling in terms of filling our cars up at the local gas station, the truth is, it would be a much bigger deal than that.

Today, the Air Force alone operates a fleet of 490 refueling tankers that are absolutely vital to the national security enterprise. Most of America’s fighters carry enough fuel to remain in a fight for only about 30 minutes before needing to either head home or to a tanker to top off, and long-duration bombing missions are absolutely reliant on meeting refueling tankers at precise points along their flight paths to function. But tankers themselves are highly vulnerable aircraft and a fight against a near-peer with advanced air defenses and significant airpower to draw from would invariably mean losing a lot of these gas stations in the sky.

The Air Force currently burns through around two billion gallons of aviation fuel per year… and fusion could drop that figure to near zero while giving fighters, bombers, drones, and other platforms practically limitless range and loiter time. Fusion reactors don’t function like fission weapon systems, meaning captured or recovered reactors from downed aircraft would pose little risk of either environmental contamination or allowing bad actors to reverse engineer nuclear weapons technology. (Note: Thermonuclear weapons do leverage fusion, but that fusion is started by a fission detonation.)

But the truth is, flying without fuel is just the beginning of what fusion could do for aviation. An abundance of electrical energy could power an array of advanced directed energy weapons, as well as groundbreaking new missile-defense systems like the Navy’s patented laser-induced plasma filament hologram systems capable of projecting super-heated illusions dozens of meters from the jet itself to confuse incoming infrared-guided weapons.

But even slashed fuel expenditures and high-tech laser beams could be accused of “thinking small” in terms of containerized fusion. Nearly every facet of current aircraft design and operation is affected by the need to carry, manage, and efficiently use liquid fuel, from internal space allocation to exterior shape, from engine management to combat tactics. All of this, and I do mean all of this, could change if Lockheed Martin’s containerized fusion concept comes to fruition.

Before fusion can change the world, it will change defense

By now, I can hear some of you screaming about the mind-bogglingly broad implications of fusion power and what a travesty it is to think of it strictly in terms of defense applications like fighters, bombers, drones, and the like. But the truth is… there’s good reason for us to think that this technology will find its way into the fight before it finds its way into our homes.

It’s not surprising that there’s a longstanding joke about nuclear fusion that goes something like, “it’s only 30 years away… and always will be.” This forward-reaching tech seems so promising and advancements are made somewhat regularly, but using it for practical applications always seems just a bit out of reach. The truth is, fusion — like most scientific enterprises — could be much more mature today if the chase for an efficient reactor were fueled by larger investments.

The fact of the matter is, burning oil for energy may not be good for the environment, but it’s a whole lot cheaper than inventing a new means of power production and entirely new fleets of vehicles to leverage it. And while reducing oil consumption has clear benefits in terms of environmental effects, it’s unlikely that humanity will actually run out of it any time soon. According to British Petroleum’s 2019 Statistical Review of World Energy, there remains about 48 years’ worth of oil (at 2019 usage levels) — about 1,733.9 billion barrels — in existing oil reserves based on local extraction infrastructure. But scientists are well aware that there’s a great deal more than that still out there, either sitting in undiscovered fields or being stored in places that existing infrastructure within the region can’t access. The painful truth is that oil will likely still be around and pretty cheap for a long time to come, limiting investment in technologies like fusion.

UK Atomic Energy Authority’s CEO, Professor Ian Chapman, the man in charge of the Joint European Torus (JET) fusion reactor, explained this succinctly in a recent interview with National Geographic when asked how long he believed it would be before fusion power was commercially viable.

“That’s an imponderable question and depends so much on energy dynamics, government policy, and what’s going on with carbon pricing,” he tells National Geographic UK.

“I never answer the question. I always quote Lev Artsimovich, one of the founding fathers of the tokamak [a prominent fusion reactor design]. He was asked this question at a press conference in the Soviet Union in the 1970s, and his answer was: ‘When mankind needs it, maybe a short time before that.’ I think that’s still true.”

He likens the fusion chase to the Space Race of the 1950s and 1960s, highlighting how inconceivable reaching the moon seemed during Kennedy’s 1962 speech, but how allocating 4% of America’s gross domestic product to the enterprise thereafter made it feasible. Fusion may run on hydrogen isotopes, but it still needs starting fuel in the form of big wads of money.

And that’s where efforts like Lockheed Martin’s CFR program come in. While corporations may not be incentivized to fund the development of advanced alternate fuel sources quite yet, the need is becoming more pressing than ever. As fuel price instability continues to plague the market, America’s defense apparatus will likely continue to invest in ways to insulate against that.

So while fusion could be a game changer for the entire planet, practical use for it may just manifest first in the shadowy confines of an Area 51 hangar, an exotic submarine propulsion program, or another Pentagon initiative. And ironically enough, a reliable, efficient, and safe means of producing huge amounts of power could lead to a reduction of conflict all around the world…

Meaning that, on a long enough timeline, the Department of Defense may just spend itself right out of the job.

And that’s one outcome we can all hope for.

Alex Hollings is a writer, dad, and Marine veteran who specializes in foreign policy and defense technology analysis. He holds a master’s degree in Communications from Southern New Hampshire University, as well as a bachelor’s degree in Corporate and Organizational Communications from Framingham State University. This first appeared in Sandboxx. 

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