A simplified diagram showing the bubble-through nuclear thermal propulsion engine concept.
Courtesy Propulsion Research Center
A cutting-edge nuclear thermal propulsion (NTP) rocket engine using what’s called centrifugal liquid fuel bubble-through could one day be a ticket for NASA to go directly into deep space.
Under an NTP research contract for the Space Nuclear Propulsion Project Office at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC), The University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH), a part of the University of Alabama System, is leading a collaboration of universities across the nation including the University of Rhode Island (URI), Drexel University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Pennsylvania State University and the University of Michigan (U-M) to research the concept.
NASA has made substantial advances toward a solid fuel NTP design. The bubble-through concept under study by the university collaborators is one of three proposed hydrogen-based designs for a next generation liquid fuel NTP rocket.
Either in person or virtually, all of NASA’s NTP academic partners will gather on March 11 at a workshop hosted by UAH for NASA to discuss their progress and issues.
The bubble-through centrifugal NTP concept heats hydrogen gas propellant to super-hot temperatures, but there is no combustion. Hydrogen is literally bubbled through a rotating liquid uranium core in the engine via a porous cylinder wall, causing the gas to rapidly expand. As it exits the nozzle, the expanding hydrogen provides thrust for the spacecraft.
The design’s advantages include significantly higher performance over conventional liquid fuel rocket engines that combust hydrogen and oxygen, says Dr. Dale Thomas, the project’s principal investigator and an eminent scholar in systems engineering at UAH.
“In conventional liquid fuel engine combustion, the resulting propellant molecules – H2O in the case of hydrogen and oxygen – are much heavier due to those relatively heavy oxygen atoms, and they will not exit the nozzle as fast, providing more thrust but less impulse,” Dr. Thomas says.
Thrust is the force supplied by the engine, for example to lift a spacecraft away from Earth’s gravity. Impulse is the change in momentum per unit of fuel, and that matters when it comes to getting a spacecraft where it’s going in space.
“Think of your car,” Dr. Thomas says. “Think of thrust as torque and impulse as miles per gallon (mpg). Both matter, just like both torque and mpg matter in your car.”
Hotter, relatively lightweight hydrogen atoms will make the ship go farther.
“If we get the propellant hotter, it has more energy and will exit the nozzle faster, which provides more impulse,” Dr. Thomas says. “Since this is a higher performing engine, it has the potential to power spacecraft on trajectories other than the minimum energy trajectories, providing options for higher energy trajectories that will shorten the trip time to and from Mars and other destinations throughout the solar system.”
Conceptually intriguing, the bubble-through engine presents a number of technical challenges, not the least of which is developing a material for its porous cylinder wall that can withstand direct contact with the molten uranium fuel.
“We’re in the very early stages on this,” Dr. Thomas says.
“This bubble-through concept has been around since the ’60s,” he says. “The physics are well understood, but the engineering challenges have precluded getting this concept off the drawing board in the past. We’re attempting to see whether today’s technologies will let us develop a viable liquid fuel NTP engine prototype.”
The UAH work focuses in three areas, he says.
“The first part is liquid uranium and gaseous hydrogen thermodynamic heat transfer modeling and analysis. Second, we’ll be doing modeling and analysis of geometry and trajectory of gaseous hydrogen bubbles in a liquid uranium medium, and third, we’ll perform experimentation to confirm the analytical predictions of dynamic and thermodynamic models.”
Besides Dr. Thomas, who is in charge of modeling missions, faculty involved in the research from UAH are Dr. Keith Hollingsworth, professor and department chair of mechanical and aerospace engineering, in charge of thermodynamics; Dr. Robert Frederick, professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering and director of the Propulsion Research Center, overseeing experimentation; and Dr. Jason Cassibry, associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, in charge of bubble dynamics.
Aerospace systems graduate research assistants involved are Mitchell Schroll, a doctoral candidate; Pongkrit Darakorn na Ayuthy (a.k.a. Boom), a doctoral candidate; Ben Campbell, a master’s student; Jacob Keese, a master’s student; and Will Ziehm, a master’s student.
At MSFC, the researchers are working with Dr. Michael Houts, nuclear research manager.
Partner URI is doing senior design projects on the drive systems for the engine’s centrifugal fuel elements, including how to spin them up to operating speed, keep them at the desired rotational speed and spin them down. Drexel is developing the material properties of the cylinder wall and MIT is studying bubble dynamics. At U-M, researchers will look experimentally into the physics of the reactor itself, which is called neutronics. Penn State is researching neutronics and heating.
At Johnson Research Center, UAH’s scientists are building experimental apparatus to confirm their analytical predictions of heat transfer and bubble dynamics. Two exist so far, called the Ant Farm and the Bubbling Liquid Experiment Navigating Driven Extreme Rotation, or BLENDER. The devices use air bubbles in water to simulate the bubbling of hydrogen through the engine’s core.
The centrifugal NTP engine research fits well with other UAH research that Dr. Thomas leads for NASA to develop a spacecraft designed for use with solid fuel NTP engines.
“We are conducting mission studies, looking at what all can you do with a solid fuel NTP propulsion system other than a crewed mission to Mars,” he says. “Our work so far indicates that it will enable direct trajectories for un-crewed scientific missions to the outer planets in the solar system, and perhaps even sample returns from the Jovian moons.”
In a direct trajectory, a spacecraft flies directly to a destination. Current chemical propulsion systems must rely on proper planetary alignments to take advantage of gravity assists when flying by planets.
“Those planetary alignments only come around once every few years,” Dr. Thomas says. “With this liquid fuel NTP, you can perhaps even get to the Kuiper Belt on a direct trajectory.”
That would be quite a ride. The Kuiper Belt starts 4,400,000,000 km from the sun.
Original Article: ‘Bubble-through’ nuclear engine might be a future NASA workhorse
The Latest Updates from Bing News & Google News
Go deeper with Bing News on:
Nuclear thermal propulsion
- Nuclear test veterans to be honoured with medal after campaign
Veterans who took part in the UK's nuclear testing programme will receive a new medal after years of campaigning. About 22,000 people will be eligible for the Nuclear Test Medal, introduced to mark 70 ...
- All nuclear power plants and most thermal and hydroelectric power plants temporarily down as result of missile attack
A massive Russian missile attack on 23 November has resulted in temporary power outages at all nuclear power plants and most thermal and hydroelectric power plants. Power transmission facilities have ...
- Shelling came ‘dangerously close’ to Ukraine’s nuclear plant, UN says
Ukraine narrowly avoided a nuclear catastrophe this past weekend after a barrage of shells fell “dangerously close” to the Zaporizhzhia atomic power plant’s reactors, the head of the UN’s ...
- Explainer: The Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant: who controls it and why is it important?
LONDON, Nov 21 (Reuters) - Repeated shelling of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in southern Ukraine has raised the possibility of a grave accident just 500 km (300 miles) from the site of the ...
- Explainer: Ukrainian nuclear plant shelled: Here's what we know
LONDON, Nov 21 (Reuters) - Ukraine's Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, which is under Russian control, was rocked by shelling on Sunday, drawing condemnation from the U.N. nuclear watchdog which ...
Go deeper with Google Headlines on:
Nuclear thermal propulsion
[google_news title=”” keyword=”nuclear thermal propulsion” num_posts=”5″ blurb_length=”0″ show_thumb=”left”]
Go deeper with Bing News on:
- Telechips develops next-generation automotive solutions with Italy’s BdSound
Telechips strengthens the competitiveness of its in-vehicle infotainment application processor (AP) products through a partnership with 'Bd Sound', an Italian voice recognition technology company. Tel ...
- FTX Crypto Bubble Really Is the Worst of Its Kind
As Sandy Nairn points out in his 2002 book Engines That Move Markets (a must read for anyone interested in how new technology drives bubbles), at the time, “surfaced roads remained a rarity.” ...
- A nanoscale view of bubble formation
A nanoscale view of bubble formation A new model now describes the boiling process with much greater precision Date: November 23, 2022 Source: Helmholtz-Zentrum Dresden-Rossendorf Summary: A ...
- New Euro 7 emissions regulations threaten a premature end of petrol and diesel engines
The motor industry has been lobbying against these rule changes for the past few years, with many senior figures arguing they are distraction at a time when the motor industry is going through ...
- 17 Totally Unexpected Ways to Use Bubble Wrap
There are countless ways to use bubble wrap beyond packaging. From preventing pain in long car rides to supporting young trees, the uses for bubble wrap seem endless. If you’re looking for other ...
Go deeper with Google Headlines on:
[google_news title=”” keyword=”bubble-through engine” num_posts=”5″ blurb_length=”0″ show_thumb=”left”]