Boeing just patented an advanced propulsion method that uses lasers and nuclear explosions to power rockets, missiles, or spacecraft. The “laser-powered propulsion system” combines fusion, fission, and a turbine that generates electricity.
So, how does it work? First, high-powered lasers fire at radioactive material such as Deuterium and Tritium. The radioactive material vaporizes, causing a fusion reaction that is basically a small nuclear explosion, which scatters hydrogen or helium neutrons. This high-energy material then exits the back of the engine under pressure, producing thrust.
For an added bonus, the system is practically self-powered. While the lasers and nuclear explosions are busy at work, the inside wall of the thruster is undergoing nuclear fission. There is a shield around the fusion chamber coated with uranium 238, which reacts with the high-energy neutrons produced by the nuclear reaction and generates intense heat. A coolant is sent along the other side of the combustion chamber to pick up the heat and then use it to power a turbine that generates electricity to power the same lasers that created the electric power in the first place.
It’s an exciting idea for an entirely new propulsion method, but just like NASA’s electromagnetic drive, the concept doesn’t quite match up to reality. We will be even more impressed when these novel systems are built in real life.