'Star Trek' fusion impulse engine in the works

It's not quite warp drive, but researchers are hot on the trail of building nuclear fusion impulse engines, complete with real-life dilithium crystals.

Ross Cortez
Graduate student Ross Cortez assembles a device for propulsion research. University of Alabama-Huntsville

There's a hierarchy of "Star Trek" inventions we would like to see become reality. We already have voice-controlled computers and communicators in the form of smartphones. A working Holodeck is under development. Now, how about we get some impulse engines for our starships?

The University of Alabama in Huntsville's Aerophysics Research Center, NASA, Boeing, and Oak Ridge National Laboratory are collaborating on a project to produce nuclear fusion impulse rocket engines. It's no warp drive, but it would get us around the galaxy a lot quicker than current technologies.

According to Txchnologist, the scientists are hoping to make impulse drive a reality by 2030. It would be capable of taking a spacecraft from Earth to Mars in as little as six weeks.

"The fusion fuel we're focusing on is deuterium [a stable isotope of hydrogen] and Li6 [a stable isotope of the metal lithium] in a crystal structure," Txchnologist quotes team member and aerospace engineering Ph.D. candidate Ross Cortez saying. "That's basically dilithium crystals we're using." Let's pause and savor that for a moment. Dilithium crystals. Awesome.

Plenty of obstacles will need to be overcome during the development process. The issue of harnessing fusion is prominent, but there is also the question of turning the power generated by fusion into thrust for an engine. The craft using the impulse drive would also need to be assembled in space, much like the International Space Station.

"Imagine using a 1-ton TNT equivalent explosive and putting it out the back end of a rocket. That's what we're doing here," Cortez says in a press release about the project. Now we can all practice saying "full impulse power" to our imaginary starship navigators.

 

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