Let’s talk about fusion fuels in relation to the recent discussion of building a spacecraft engine. A direct fusion drive (DFD) system using magnetic mirror technologies is, as we saw last time, being investigated at the University of Maryland in its Centrifugal Mirror Fusion Experiment (CMFX), as an offshoot of the effort to produce fusion for terrestrial purposes. The initial concept being developed at CMFX is to introduce a radial electric field into the magnetic mirror system. This enhances centrifugal confinement of the plasma in a system using deuterium and tritium as fusion fuel.

Out of this we get power but not thrust. However, both UMD’s Jerry Carson and colleague Tom Bone told the Interstellar Research Group’s Montreal gathering that such a reactor coupled with a reservoir of warm plasma offers prospects for in-space propulsion. Alpha particles (these are helium nuclei produced in the fusion reaction) may stay in the reactor, further energizing the fuel, or they can move upstream, to be converted into electricity by a Standing Wave Direct Energy Converter (SWDEC). A third alternative: They may move downstream to mix with the warm plasma, producing thrust as the plasma expands within a magnetic nozzle.

Image: The fusion propulsion system as shown in Jerry Carson’s presentation at IRG Montreal. Thanks to Dr. Carson for passing along the slides.

We also know that fusion fuel options carry their own pluses and minuses. We can turn to deuterium/deuterium reactions (D/D) at the expense of neutron production, something we have to watch carefully if we are talking about powering up a manned spacecraft. The deuterium/tritium reaction (D/T) produces even more neutron flux, while deuterium/helium-3 (D/He3) loses most of the neutron output but demands helium-3 in abundances we only find off-planet. Tom Bone’s presentation at Montreal turned the discussion in a new direction. What about hydrogen and boron?

Here the nomenclature is p-11B, or proton-boron-11, where a hydrogen nucleus (p) collides with a boron-11 nucleus in a reaction that is aneutronic and produces three alpha particles. The downside is that this kind of fusion demands temperatures even higher than D/He3, a challenge to our current confinement and heating technologies. A second disadvantage is the production of bremsstrahlung radiation, which Bone told the Montreal audience was of the same magnitude as the charged particle production.

The German word ‘bremsen’ means ‘to brake,’ hence ‘bremsstrahlung’ means ‘braking radiation,’ a reference to the X-ray radiation produced by a charged particle when it is decelerated by its encounter with atomic nuclei. So p-11B becomes even more problematic as a fuel, given the fact that boron has five electrons, creating a fusion plasma that is a lively place indeed. Bone’s notion is to take this otherwise crippling drawback and turn it to our advantage by converting some of the bremsstrahlung radiation into usable electricity. To do this, it will be necessary to absorb the radiation to produce heat.

Bone’s work at UMD focuses on thermal energy conversion using what is called a thermionic energy converter (TEC), which can convert heat directly into electricity. He pointed out that TECs are a good choice for space applications because they offer low maintenance and low mass coupled with high levels of efficiency. TECs operate off the thermionic emission that occurs when an electron can escape a heated material, a process Bone likened to ‘boiling off’ the electron. An emitter and collector in the TEC thus absorb the heat from the bremsstrahlung radiation to produce electricity.

Image: A screenshot from Dr. Bone’s presentation in Montreal.

I don’t want to get any deeper in the weeds here and will send you to Bone’s presentation for the details on the possibilities in TEC design, including putting the TEC emitter and collector in tight proximity with the air pumped out between them (a ‘vacuum TEC’) and putting an ionized vapor between the two (a ‘vapor TEC’). But Bone is upfront about the preliminary nature of this work. The objective at this early stage is to create a basic analytical model for p-11b fuel in a propulsion system using TECs to convert radiation into electricity, with the accompanying calculations to balance power and efficiency and find the lowest bremsstrahlung production for a given power setting.

The scope of needed future work on this is large. What exactly is the best ratio of hydrogen to boron in this scenario, for one thing, and how can the electric and magnetic field levels needed to light this kind of fusion be reduced? “It’s not an easy engineering problem,” Bone added. “It’s certainly not a near-term challenge to solve.”

True enough, but it’s clear that we should be pushing into every aspect of fusion as we learn more about confining these reactions in an in-space engine. Experimenting with alternate fusion fuels has to be part of the process, work that will doubtless continue even as we push forward on the far more tractable issues of deuterium/tritium.