Will Fusion Power Finally Clean Up Military Aircraft?

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Cutting back on fossil fuels is hard enough for ground transportation. Electric cars and trucks are more expensive than their ICE counterparts, and even if the TCO is lower, that doesn’t make it any easier to get approved for a higher payment. Even the EV heavyweights like Tesla are struggling to electrify long-haul trucking. But, these challenges are mostly related to the cost of batteries and the cost of infrastructure now. The technology has been proven out.

Changes are also happening with aviation. Efficient planes, small planes, and short-range VTOL are all somewhat easy to electrify. But, when the planes get bigger, everybody starts talking about hydrogen. There comes a point where the energy density is just too low to not have the plane be a battery hauler instead of a people or cargo hauler. And supersonic flight? That’s not happening with batteries or hydrogen any time soon because the energy needs to sustain that are just too crazy.

But, some military patents and other information that’s been surmised shows us that the military may end up pioneering fusion transportation. Not only is it the best way for militaries to electrify fast, fast planes, but the other advantages will make economic sense for militaries before it makes sense for civilian vehicles. (video continues after embedded video)

This story goes back to 2018, when the U.S. military patented a “plasma confinement system”. If that sounds like Star Trek, you’re right. High-powered reactors need a way to keep the hot, hot plasma inside so that the whole thing doesn’t burn up. But, unlike Star Trek, the goal isn’t to contain or confine a matter-antimatter reaction, but a more “conventional” fusion reaction. Fusion probably won’t power a faster than light spacecraft, but it’s definitely got sufficient energy to push planes.

Obviously, fusion power would change the world far beyond the military. Not only would the energy be carbon-free, but it would also come at a far lower radioactive waste cost. Having abundant low-cost clean energy would change the geopolitical landscape, too, as people wouldn’t have to rely on limited energy sources that some countries have more access to than others (fossil fuels). This means not only very different warfare, but probably a lot less of it.

But, coming up with the money to make such a fundamental breakthrough isn’t easy. Most of the world is too busy trying to take care of the day-to-day expenses of feeding, watering, sheltering, and clothing humanity to deal with radical new technologies that would take decades to pay off. But, the world tends to spend a LOT of money on militaries and the United States is no exception. So, there’s a lot more money to spend, and the money can be spent in secret to try to get an advantage over competing military powers.

Militaries have been trying to do nuclear-powered aircraft for a long time, but fission power (as opposed to fusion) are a lot dirtier. Putting them on an airplane is dirty, dangerous, and risky. So, the technology was never more than an experimental effort. What was learned did end up being used in submarines, though.

The U.S. military took the risks to experiment because it would have had a lot of advantages. By not needing to refuel and being able to stay up in the sky for weeks or months at a time, military missions would be a lot less vulnerable to attacks on fuel supply lines and aerial tankers. Like a hypothetical EV with a tiny fusion reactor, we can probably all see the advantages that would come with practically unlimited range.

So, the costs are something the military would be willing to keep taking risks on. Whatever military can field fusion-powered planes first would have an amazing advantage over any enemies. But, there are some serious challenges ahead. At present, fusion reactions are possible, but getting the fusion reaction going and keeping it going currently takes more energy than today’s reactor designs can produce.

In secret, the U.S. military has been working on overcoming this challenge. The patent mentioned in the video shows that it’s possible to not only deliver all of the benefits of fusion, but in a package small enough to fit on everything from fighters to bombers to airliners. The secret to the system is that it produces better confinement the harder the fusion reaction pushes against it. Researchers call this “self tuning”.

If researchers have gotten it figured out (or eventually do), it will be possible to add energy to air with superheated liquids instead of the burning of fossil fuels. So, you could basically have an electric version of a jet engine. This would mean aircraft that can go their whole service life without needing new fuel.

Beyond unlimited flight range, the availability of all that extra energy in the sky could do a lot more. The excess electricity could power things like lasers, holographic decoys, and more. Plus, the shapes and capabilities of planes could be a lot different than today.

If militaries could use the technology for warfare, it would eventually go out into the civilian market. It could then become commercially viable and compete with cheap fossil fuels. This would end up being a game changer for clean energy, peaceful world relations, and more.

Why This Wouldn’t Replace Today’s Clean Technologies

One thing the video doesn’t get into is what happens to things like solar, wind, and hydro power in a future world with abundant fusion energy.

My thinking on this is that it’s extremely unlikely that most transportation and home energy needs get directly fed by a fusion reactor. Why? Because the small size doesn’t necessarily mean small costs and complexity. It’s going to make a lot more financial sense to connect cheaper fusion reactors to the grid and then use them to put out electricity just the same as today. Nobody wants to have a reactor, heat exchangers, super hot water plumbing, and steam turbines at home in need of regular maintenance and repairs.

So, things like EVs with batteries, home energy storage, and solar will still have a place, especially if you want to be able to still have power during grid-related outages. For completely off-grid applications, solar will still be the cheaper option for a long, long time.

Featured image from U.S. Patent US20180047462A1 (Public Domain)

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Jennifer Sensiba

Jennifer Sensiba is a long time efficient vehicle enthusiast, writer, and photographer. She grew up around a transmission shop, and has been experimenting with vehicle efficiency since she was 16 and drove a Pontiac Fiero. She likes to get off the beaten path in her "Bolt EAV" and any other EVs she can get behind the wheel or handlebars of with her wife and kids. You can find her on Twitter here, Facebook here, and YouTube here.

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