Scientists test novel power system for space travel (w/ video)

Nov 26, 2012
John Bounds of Los Alamos National Laboratory's Advanced Nuclear Technology Division makes final adjustments on the DUFF experiment, a demonstration of a simple, robust fission reactor prototype that could be used as a power system for space travel. DUFF is the first demonstration of a space nuclear reactor system to produce electricity in the United States since 1965.

(Phys.org)—A team of researchers, including engineers from Los Alamos National Laboratory, has demonstrated a new concept for a reliable nuclear reactor that could be used on space flights.

The research team recently demonstrated the first use of a heat pipe to cool a small nuclear reactor and power a Stirling engine at the Nevada National Security Site's Device Assembly Facility near Las Vegas. The Demonstration Using Flattop Fissions (DUFF) experiment produced 24 watts of electricity. A team of engineers from Los Alamos, the NASA Glenn Research Center and National Security Technologies LLC (NSTec) conducted the experiment.

Heat pipe technology was invented at Los Alamos in 1963. A heat pipe is a sealed tube with an internal fluid that can efficiently transfer heat produced by a reactor with no moving parts. A Stirling engine is a relatively simple closed-loop engine that converts heat energy into electrical power using a pressurized gas to move a piston. Using the two devices in tandem allowed for creation of a simple, reliable electric power supply that can be adapted for space applications.

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An animation of the new reactor concept

Researchers configured DUFF on an existing experiment, known as Flattop, to allow for a water-based heat pipe to extract heat from uranium. Heat from the fission reaction was transferred to a pair of free-piston Stirling engines manufactured by Sunpower Inc., based in Athens Ohio. Engineers from NASA Glenn designed and built the heat pipe and Stirling assembly and operated the engines during the experiment. Los Alamos nuclear engineers operated the Flattop assembly under authorization from the (NNSA).

DUFF is the first demonstration of a space nuclear reactor system to produce electricity in the United States since 1965, and the experiment confirms basic physics and heat transfer for a simple, reliable space power system.

"The nuclear characteristics and thermal power level of the experiment are remarkably similar to our space reactor flight concept," said Los Alamos engineer David Poston. "The biggest difference between DUFF and a possible flight system is that the Stirling input temperature would need to be hotter to attain the required efficiency and power output needed for space missions."

"The heat pipe and Stirling engine used in this test are meant to represent one module that could be used in a space system," said Marc Gibson of NASA Glenn. "A flight system might use several modules to produce approximately one kilowatt of electricity."

Current space missions typically use power supplies that generate about the same amount of electricity as one or two household light bulbs. The availability of more power could potentially boost the speed with which mission data is transmitted back to Earth, or increase the number of instruments that could be operated at the same time aboard a spacecraft.

"A small, simple, lightweight fission power system could lead to a new and enhanced capability for space science and exploration", said Los Alamos project lead Patrick McClure. "We hope that this proof of concept will soon move us from the old-frontier of Nevada to the new-frontier of outer ".

Los Alamos research on the project was made possible through Los Alamos's Laboratory-Directed Research and Development Program (LDRD), which is funded by a small percentage of the Laboratory's overall budget to invest in new or cutting-edge research. NASA Glenn and NSTec also used internal support to fund their contributions to the experiment.

"Perhaps one of the more important aspects of this experiment is that it was taken from concept to completion in 6 months for less than a million dollars," said Los Alamos engineer David Dixon. "We wanted to show that with a tightly-knit and focused team, it is possible to successfully perform practical reactor testing."

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User comments : 33

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cees_timmerman
5 / 5 (9) Nov 26, 2012
I love the acronym: http://www.youtub...ZzDicfZg
Maggnus
4.5 / 5 (15) Nov 26, 2012
It's too bad the benefits of this technology will likely get lost in the fog of politics arising from the anti-nuclear anything crowd.

I remember clearly the borderline hysteria arising from the launch of Cassini.
Arcbird
1.3 / 5 (19) Nov 26, 2012
It's too bad mainstream science call anything that's 1% out of the ordinary "a huge stepping stone towards the future" This nuclear drive will barely get us out of the backyard.
antialias_physorg
4.9 / 5 (15) Nov 26, 2012
It's too bad mainstream science call anything that's 1% out of the ordinary "a huge stepping stone towards the future"

So? That's how science works: One small step at a time - but each step is hugely important.
Sonhouse
4.8 / 5 (11) Nov 26, 2012
It's too bad mainstream science call anything that's 1% out of the ordinary "a huge stepping stone towards the future" This nuclear drive will barely get us out of the backyard.


You should google the phrase 'proof of concept' before you start dissing this technology. Of course, you being a genius and all with 4 Phd's, can do a LOT better.....
malapropism
4.6 / 5 (16) Nov 26, 2012
It's too bad mainstream science call anything that's 1% out of the ordinary "a huge stepping stone towards the future" This nuclear drive will barely get us out of the backyard.

It's not a drive, it's a generator to produce the electricity the probe instruments need.
Hakan1997
1 / 5 (10) Nov 26, 2012
Only 1 million dollars?

Reactor engineers live in a world of their own when it comes to money.
philw1776
2.8 / 5 (8) Nov 26, 2012
Physicist Dr Michio Kaku went ballistic over Cassini nuclear RTG. This actual fission reactor will give him a coronary. Seems like even our PhDs get their science from Jane Fonda movies. "China Syndrome"
SpaceIsOurFriend
5 / 5 (6) Nov 26, 2012
Physicist Dr Michio Kaku went ballistic over Cassini nuclear RTG. This actual fission reactor will give him a coronary.

Agree that the risk from radiation is way overblown, but if anything guys like Kaku will like the reactor better - until it is turned on (presumably after it has left Earth), the reactor (uranium) is many orders of magnitude less radioactive than RTG (plutonium).
SpaceIsOurFriend
5 / 5 (2) Nov 26, 2012
It's too bad mainstream science call anything that's 1% out of the ordinary "a huge stepping stone towards the future"

So? That's how science works: One small step at a time - but each step is hugely important.


One of these guys, Poston, actually has a blog that discusses the need for small steps: spacenuke.blogspot.com
_KB
1.3 / 5 (12) Nov 26, 2012
The great thing about space is that there is no gravity. Magnets are a key energy source in space for these small scale 500 watts projects. Fission is good but this is very old school and we can do better than this if they really want to use Uranium.
Jeddy_Mctedder
2 / 5 (24) Nov 26, 2012
i bet the environmental idiots want to use wind power in outerspace. once you tell them its not possible, they will say solar, you say its not possible, they say-----well we can't have carbon dioxide in space because its global warming.

then you say, no , that's dumb you morons, we want a mini-nuke reactor in space , and then they crap their pants and say space is off limits.

environmentalists are almost all morons. almost.
Silverhill
4.5 / 5 (4) Nov 26, 2012
_KB, it would be better to think of magnets as an energy repository, not a source. They are quite useful in interconverting other types of energy, though -- what exactly are you proposing?
Duff
5 / 5 (3) Nov 26, 2012
Yes, this is old school--Flattop has been around since 1951, heat pipes generally since 1963, and the Stirling engines used here had been collecting dust for years. But one of the problems that has plagued NASA and the national labs is the desire to jump off to the next trendy technology, without first making the here-and-now work. You actually have to build and operate the system before claiming a success--a paper study, no matter the level of effort, just doesn't cut it.
Jack D Ripper
1 / 5 (6) Nov 27, 2012
Wow! Stirling Engines! This most certainly propels us into the 19th century! It stir's the cochlea of the mind....

Interesting concept. With 24 whole watts, you could put a pretty good electric fan on that ship. It may not gain speed at first, but give it..a few millennia.... It should have gained traction on the aether by then....
despinos
5 / 5 (3) Nov 27, 2012
As I see it, the reason for using radioactiactive materials to obtain energy in space missions is quite straightforward: energy storage density and reliability. What other system offers so many total wattsxhour/kg?
The following documents offers a good overview on the subject
http://large.stan...-571.pdf
The doc shows that electriccity from fission in space has a (relatively) long story of research at NASA, though it seems that thermoelectricity has been favorite over mechanical means of generation.
The weak point may be in the moving parts of the stirling engine.
Also, It seems that environmental international politics issues are a key factor here, that explains the use of Uranium instead of plutonium.
What i like is that they (NASA) will not disregard any proven technology (stirling motor) even if it is not currently "fancy" .
Screeching Demon
1.5 / 5 (8) Nov 27, 2012
I can't believe they're resorting to something so inefficient as this. Why isn't more research done into the LFTR design? Sure, it may not be as simple to build as this 1960's design, but I believe the benefits would outweigh the inconvience of a slightly more complex design. It seems like this program is moving backward, is it going to have a couple sticks and a blanket onboard to send us data via smoke signals? Uranium reactors are so crude and outdated, it's sad to think that's the best they can come up with. Might as well carry our message to the universe on an 8 track while you're at it!
Skepticus
3 / 5 (6) Nov 27, 2012
Wait until the couldn't-have-cared-less Chinese built a nuclear powered spacecraft then suddenly all the objections will go out of the window.
spacenuke
5 / 5 (2) Nov 27, 2012
Uranium reactors are so crude and outdated, it's sad to think that's the best they can come up with.


Uranium fission offers energy and power densities beyond anything NASA could utilize (i.e. with engineered systems) for generations to come. It's all about engineering a useful and affordable fission power system and growing the capability from there.

Also, I can't think of any benefits that thorium cycle/molten salt could provide for a NASA reactor power system (unless we get to the nth generation system/infrastructure where we could utilize thorium from the Moon or asteroids).
Shinobiwan Kenobi
2.7 / 5 (13) Nov 27, 2012
I bet the pro-burn-all-the-fossil-fuels-now-because-I-don't-believe-97%-of-climate-scientists idiots want to disparage those that are capable of looking beyond the next five minutes of existence by feigning knowledge that is readily available to the public and make outlandish claims that informed individuals would not make. Once you correct their misconception, they will say, "It's lies fed to us by Big-Gubment!"; When you point out that individuals with Ph.D.s are presenting information with major implications that require sacrifices at the upper levels simply because it is true and the ethical thing to do to warn the public, they will claim, "They're all bought-off and it's a vast conspiracy to take muh guns!".

When you say, "No, that's dumb you morons, we want to preserve the planet for future generations because the things we are doing now point down a dead-end.", they'll bury their heads deeper into the sand and call you a heretic.

Denialists are morons. ALL of them. <3 <3
Quondam
1.8 / 5 (4) Nov 27, 2012
@Shinobiwan
sounded nice, but not sure if it actually makes sense
Shinobiwan Kenobi
2.1 / 5 (7) Nov 27, 2012
@Shinobiwan
sounded nice, but not sure if it actually makes sense


It was in reply to Jeddy_McTedder, he seems to be pretty good at missing the point of articles posted on Phys.org.

From above:
i bet the environmental idiots want to use wind power in outerspace. once you tell them its not possible, they will say solar, you say its not possible, they say-----well we can't have carbon dioxide in space because its global warming.

then you say, no , that's dumb you morons, we want a mini-nuke reactor in space , and then they crap their pants and say space is off limits.

environmentalists are almost all morons. almost.
antialias_physorg
3.6 / 5 (7) Nov 27, 2012
Agree that the risk from radiation is way overblown, but if anything guys like Kaku will like the reactor better - until it is turned on (presumably after it has left Earth), the reactor (uranium) is many orders of magnitude less radioactive than RTG (plutonium).

The stuff is always radioactive whether you use it for energy production or not (you can't "turn off" radioactive decay).

Nuclear power in outer space (i.e. anywhere that is beyond an Earth orbit) is OK. There's no environment there to contaminate.
Getting the stuff there is a different matter because a launch is the most dangerous part of a mission - so here we DO have cause for concern. And atmospheric explosion of significant amounts of fissionables is a biggie.

Best would be to find a source of radioactive material that is off Earth and use that.

The thing I find somewhat vexing about the technology is that it still relies on pumping gases through tubes for electricity generation. That seems so...quaint.
Doug_Huffman
3.3 / 5 (7) Nov 27, 2012
"Always radioactive" beggars mass specific activity. Un-fluxed fuel is slightly more radioactive than lead. Fluxed fuel needs little security from such illiterates.

The coincidence of M. Kaku, 'environmentalism', and Cassini-Huygens in this thread is less surprising for his embrace of AGW.
MrVibrating
1 / 5 (5) Nov 27, 2012
Given the progress in thermovoltaics this seems a tad steampunk; it may be more practical in the meantime, but developing TV up to Carnot efficiency would seem a more ideal solution.

Incidentally, can't help but connect this to NASA tech. chief Dennis Bushnell's enthusiasm for LENR... doesn't necessarily imply a coordinated focus since they'll always be chasing higher energy densities, still, their supplies of heavy stuff are fast running out, so any future generation of thermoelectrics will need to be geared towards some other fuel source...
Torbjorn_Larsson_OM
3.7 / 5 (3) Nov 27, 2012
This is a logical step after the next Stirling RTGs and the problems with getting their Pu isotopes.

"Why isn't more research done into the LFTR design?"

Because it is " very different from today's reactors in almost any aspect." [Wikipedia.] Noty something you do for 1 MUSD on the spot and before the lack of Pu will stop missions to the outer system.

"Physicist Dr Michio Kaku went ballistic over Cassini nuclear RTG. This actual fission reactor will give him a coronary."

Morally, I wouldn't wish it on anyone. But scientifically, I could hope so.

Kaku, the great public panderer.
ValeriaT
1.4 / 5 (10) Nov 27, 2012
The cold fusion generates a way more energy per unit of volume and it doesn't generate any significant radiation. This research will become obsolete soon and it just delays the introduction of really progressive forms of energy. The nuclear engines cannot be used for starts of rockets from atmosphere anyway - at the case of crash it would lead into radioactive contamination for centuries.
Torbjorn_Larsson_OM
3.5 / 5 (6) Nov 27, 2012
@ Doug Huffman: "his embrace of AGW."

Except when he panders to science, natch. What do you expect scientist to do with other fields, _not_ accept the currently accepted in-field science? AGW is the current climate regime as found out by the field of climate science. It is accepted by all climate scientsist but also bu physicists et cetera. Easy to check with NAS in US, say. Or IPCC, which draws together a lot of disciplines in order to check out what AGW will mean for our society.

@ KB: "Magnets are a key energy source." A field in itself sources no energy, except when you collapse it. An EM field is a great energy conduit though, by its Poynting vector (ExB/t^2) energy flow similar to its Lorentz force (ExB) ability. Eg, as solar power source.

@ ValeraiT: There is no "cold fusion". NASA need an energy source, see the article. Fantasies is not that.
TheGhostofOtto1923
3.9 / 5 (11) Nov 27, 2012
I think there is some promise in this stuff
http://en.wikiped...emission
http://en.wikiped...troversy
georgejmyersjr
not rated yet Nov 28, 2012
In space and underwater no one can hear Sterling engines. A Swedish sub runs propulsion underwater from one similarly connected to the sub reactor, and it was asked to run silent that way off the California coast recently so the US Navy could test ways of finding it. It made 10 knots as I recall, and perhaps they should be renamed Ericsson engines, he built and designed many, and of course the underwater propeller cutting coal burning in half.
antialias_physorg
5 / 5 (4) Nov 28, 2012
@Torbjorn:
@ ValeraiT: There is no "cold fusion". NASA need an energy source, see the article. Fantasies is not that.

To be fair: Their engine does run on hot gas.
So if we put ValeriaT in a chamber, blast him up into space, and let him gabble away about cold fusion up there then that wil produce more than enough hot air to provide power.

And it would be a durable power source, too.
_ilbud
5 / 5 (1) Dec 03, 2012
It's almost laughable that USAians are still spouting their oil company sponsored lies about the environment and the climate. This kind of bought and paid for idiocy is both despicable and disgusting. An entire continent poioned to such an extent that all the fish is inedible and most of the food is classed as unfit for Human consumption by EU standards, and still it's not enough for the willfully stupid. Looks like the real Americans called it right.
Claudius
1 / 5 (3) Dec 28, 2012
Nuclear power in outer space (i.e. anywhere that is beyond an Earth orbit) is OK. There's no environment there to contaminate.


Until its orbit decays and it vaporizes in the atmosphere.

Compared to all the vaporized "depleted" uranium being used around the globe, it would be a relatively minor addition to the hazard.