Scientists develop fusion rocket technology in lab – and aim for Mars

An artist’s conception shows a spacecraft powered by a fusion-driven rocket. In this image, the crew would be in the forward chamber, shielded from the fusion reactor toward the back. Solar panels on the sides would collect energy to initiate the process that creates a fusion reaction.


Researchers at the University of Washington say they’ve built all the pieces for a fusion-powered rocket system that could get a crew to Mars in 30 days. Now they just have to put the pieces together and see if they work.

“If we can pull off a fusion demonstration in a year, with hundreds of thousands of dollars … there might be a better, cheaper, faster path to using fusion in other applications,” John Slough, a research assistant professor of aeronautics and astronautics, told NBC News.

Billions upon billions of dollars have been spent on fusion energy research over the past half-century — at places like the National Ignition Facility in California, where scientists are zapping deuterium-tritium pellets with lasers; Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico, the home of the world’s most powerful laboratory radiation source; and the ITER experimental facility in France, where the world’s biggest magnetic plasma chamber is being built.

So far, none of those multibillion-dollar projects have hit break-even, let alone the fusion jackpot. Timetables for the advent of fusion energy applications have repeatedly shifted to the right, reviving the old joke that the dawn of the fusion age will always be 30 years away.

“The only answer to the ‘always 30 years in the future’ argument is that we simply demonstrate it,” Slough said. And that’s what he and his colleagues intend to do this summer, at their lab inside a converted warehouse in Redmond, Wash.

Harnessing fusion
It’s obvious that nuclear fusion works: A prime example of the phenomenon can be seen every day, just 93 million miles away. Like other stars, our sun generates its power by combining lighter elements (like hydrogen) into heavier elements (like helium) under tremendous gravitational pressure. A tiny bit of mass from each nucleus is converted directly into energy, demonstrating the power of the equation E=mc2.

Thermonuclear bombs operate on a similar principle. But it’s not practical to set off bombs to produce peaceful energy, so how can the fusion reaction be controlled on a workable scale?

Slough and his colleagues are working on a system that shoots ringlets of metal into a specially designed magnetic field. The ringlets collapse around a tiny droplet of deuterium, a hydrogen isotope, compressing it so tightly that it produces a fusion reaction for a few millionths of a second. The reaction should result in a significant energy gain.


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