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Transportation Technology

Boeing Patents an Engine Run By Laser-Generated Fusion Explosions 242

MarkWhittington writes: Boeing has had a patent approved for an aircraft engine that uses laser-generated nuclear fusion as a power source, according to a story in Business Insider. The idea is already generating a great deal of controversy, according to the website Counter Punch. The patent has generated fears of what might happen if an aircraft containing radioactive material as fuel were to crash, spreading such fuel across the crash site.
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Boeing Patents an Engine Run By Laser-Generated Fusion Explosions

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  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday July 10, 2015 @06:40PM (#50086009)

    Fusion doesn't use any.

    • by beelsebob ( 529313 ) on Friday July 10, 2015 @06:49PM (#50086053)

      Go and read the article - the fusion is only a source of neutrons that then impact U-238 and cause fission to generate heat.

      • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

        by Anonymous Coward

        Go and read the article.

        You made me cry. "The concept is just in the patent stage and is a long way from even being a design, not to speak of a prototype". Once upon a time patents were meant to protect inventors who had come up with actual inventions.

        • Some years back, I remember seeing a story (I think it was actually here on /.) that one of the big companies (Samsung?) had gotten a patent on teleportation.

          Unless there's some sort of game they play with "continuations" of patents to keep them going forever (like at least one of the remaining patents around .mp3 encoding [google.com]) it seems like most of these sorts of patents should expire before there's even a working prototype. Is this just parasitism by company IP lawyers and associated corporate baggage tryi

    • While deuterium is stable, tritium has a half life of 12.32 years. However there wouldn't need to be a lot of tritium and it could be contained in such a way that it wouldn't be spread over a crash site.

      • by HiThere ( 15173 )

        Elemental tritium would certainly not be spread over any crash site, not unless it was carefully packaged. Otherwise it would head directly for space.

        Secondary radiation, however, is a different matter. And someone said that the fusion was only a source of neutorns to enhance fission. (That seems like a pretty wierd idea, since we don't currently have fusion working.)

        • by erice ( 13380 )

          Elemental tritium would certainly not be spread over any crash site, not unless it was carefully packaged. Otherwise it would head directly for space.

          Half right. Tritium is chemically hydrogen. As a gas, it would not spread over the crash site except for a small bit that might bond to solid materials if there is a fire. Most would go into the atmosphere where it would eventually bond with oxygen forming radioactive water. Fun.

          Secondary radiation, however, is a different matter. And someone said that the fusion was only a source of neutorns to enhance fission. (That seems like a pretty wierd idea, since we don't currently have fusion working.)

          Secondary radiation from the tritium is a non-issue. It is a beta emitter (free electrons) so it can't cause other materials to become radioactive. The neutrons from fusion and the induced fission, on the other hand are quite u

        • by Type44Q ( 1233630 ) on Friday July 10, 2015 @08:26PM (#50086451)

          we don't currently have fusion working

          We don't currently have economically viable, contained fusion reactors working.

        • Secondary radiation, however, is a different matter. And someone said that the fusion was only a source of neutorns to enhance fission. (That seems like a pretty wierd idea, since we don't currently have fusion working.)

          Hate to break the news, but bog-standard fission bombs have been getting a boost from fusion-generated neutrons since the 50s (maybe 40s -- I don't feel like looking it up ATM.

    • by Crashmarik ( 635988 ) on Friday July 10, 2015 @08:17PM (#50086411)

      From a fictional engine that doesn't exist and won't exist until we actually have practical fusion.

      Really this is what is wrong with the patent system. Now anyone developing engines using any kind of fusion is going to have a visit from Boeings lawyers over something they have done nothing to make work.

      • by Rei ( 128717 )

        No, this engine proposal is quite doable. Because most of the power doesn't come from fusion, it comes from fission. It's a subcritical fast reactor which uses fusion neutrons only to achieve criticality. It's like an ADR. ADR designs usually only call for about 10% or so of the neutrons from an accelerator; the same would apply for a fission neutron source.

      • by sjames ( 1099 )

        That's my problem with this. I've read more fleshed out 'inventions' in sci-fi novels. Why don't we just go ahead and issue a patent for the Romulan micro black hole warp core? It might be slightly easier to get going than a laser powerful enough to induce fusion but small and light enough to use in an airplane.

      • Really this is what is wrong with the patent system. Now anyone developing engines using any kind of fusion is going to have a visit from Boeings lawyers over something they have done nothing to make work.

        What's the point of filing now? Won't the patent expire long before we have a working engine?

        ... or maybe Boeing knows something about fusion engines that we don't.

        • I assume they are going to use some variant of the submarine patent.
          It was a technique perfected ? by Jerome Lemelson in the 1950s. He filed patents for technologies related to barcodes. At the time the technology to make them work wasn't available, when someone would actually develop one of the concepts he would pop up with patents the poor boobs didn't even know existed.

      • Don't worry about it; the patent will expire by the time a working model is built.

    • I'm pretty sure that hydrogen isotopes (deuterium, tritium, etc) are, in fact, radioactive... but the from the following quote (from the article),

      using a fissile material as fuel

      it would seem that the writer doesn't understand the difference between fission and fusion...

      • by Rei ( 128717 )

        No, deuterium is not radioactive. Tritium is trivially radioactive. No, the fissile material is bombarded by the fusion neutrons; it's hybrid fission/fusion.

    • by Prune ( 557140 )
      I love nuclear, but let's be fair here: tritium is radioactive, with a half-life of just over 12 years.
    • Yes, and creating a fission-powered aircraft would obviously be insane:
      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/... [wikipedia.org]

      • That might be more practical today. Drone technology is good enough to make the aircraft unpiloted, which means a fraction of the shielding requirements.

        It's still a ridiculous idea because of the crash risk, but the engineering issues could be solved. Not sure what you'd do with it. It's not really good as a nuclear bomber any more, as you couldn't effectively stealth something so big and slow - as soon as the war breaks out AA missiles would be launched.

    • Tritium is radioactive, and the neutrons that are produced will react with various elements to create radioactive isotopes.
      Uranium is also radioactive

      • Tritium (1 Proton, 2 Neutrons) decays be emitting an electron (and an anti-neutrino, and a gamma ray), converting itself to Helium 3 (2 Protons, 1 Neutron); it doesn't produce neutron radiation at all.
    • by dissy ( 172727 )

      WHAT radioactive materials?
      Fusion doesn't use any.

      I'm almost certain any such device will contain at least one atom with an atomic weight above lead, which by definition is a radioactive particle :P

    • by Antique Geekmeister ( 740220 ) on Saturday July 11, 2015 @08:41AM (#50088093)

      All current fusion reactor designs rely on deuterium and tritium. Tritium is _quite_ radioactive, with a half-life of 12 years. There is also very little of it. The world supply is on the order of 20 kilograms, and it's all accumulated from fission reactors. quoting Wikipedia, "Commercial demand for tritium is 400 grams per year and the cost is approximately US $30,000 per gram." Tritium cannot be reasonably refined: all tritium on earth in quantities large enough to refine is from fission reactors. Growing commercial production could improve the price tremendously, but it's source remains dangerous and expensive and inefficient to produce tritium.

      Deuterium is stable, and available, but also quite expensive at $1000/kg. for deuterium oxide. With an atomic weight of 2, with two oxygen atoms of atomic weight of 16, the deuterium is only 2 / 34 of the mass. So the cost for pure deuterium itself is roughly $17000/kg, or about $17/gram. It's refinable from water, but the dollar cost reflects the energy costs of refining it.

      The only large scale source of either isotope that would not be prohibitively expensive or rely on quite large scale fission generators is the solar wind. But much like large scale fission generators to create tritium it's senseless in terms of energy production. If you're bothering to build the plant for tritum, why not simply harvest the energy of the plant itself? A solar sail in orbit gathers roughly 2 kilowatts/square meter, and a roughly square kilometer mirror is quite feasible. That would be roughly 2 Terawatts of power. One could theoretically harvest deuterium and tritium from it, but with such a large power source, there seems to be no need to harvest it for fuel production for a much less efficient and quite radioactive system.

  • Now we won't have laser ignited fusion powered aircraft for another 20 years.
  • absolute BS (Score:5, Insightful)

    by frovingslosh ( 582462 ) on Friday July 10, 2015 @06:49PM (#50086051)
    Once again we have a patent issued for something that wasn't built, can't be built and likely will never be built. Boeing has no idea how to build a fusion engine, and if they could then they could and should build a ground based fusion power plant based on their magic technology. About the only thing that can ever happen with this patent is to be used by a troll in case anyone does really manage to build a fusion power plant that uses some of the same terms used in this science fiction document, such as lasers.
    • by gweihir ( 88907 )

      I agree. This type of patent should immediately be declared invalid, at huge cost to the applicant, and the idea should be made public domain. This is fraud, plain and simple.

    • by msobkow ( 48369 )

      This.

      The time has come for the patent offices of the world to mandate that you must have at least a prototype implementation of a system in order to be able to patent it.

      • Yeah, it essentially sounds like they've patented magic here.

        I didn't realize you could patent tech you can't create and which has huge gaping holes of "and a series of scientific breakthroughs happen here in the middle but we don't know how".

        This patent seems to rely on step 2 of the underpants gnomes business plan -- which means it's not so much a patent as a concept with some wishful thinking and creative writing.

        Can I patent my anti-gravity device if I don't know how to do anti-gravity?

        • Re:absolute BS (Score:5, Interesting)

          by sumdumass ( 711423 ) on Friday July 10, 2015 @08:01PM (#50086363) Journal

          Perhaps this patent is part of a psychological operations in which someone wants to make someone else believe we have capabilities we don't.

          This is where the rabbit wearing glasses thing comes from. We hid our radar capabilities in the early days of the cold war by saying carrots improved your vision and our pilots ate tons of them. This had the added benefit of spys recording locations of orange people and we got good ideas on locations of Soviet air bases as well as identities of suspected pilots that could be worked for info.

          • LOL ... is that a real fact, or one of those stupid internet facts?

            • Almost. It was the Brits during WWII, hiding the fact that they were able to spot German planes with their radar technology. Instead they started the rumor that British pilots ate lots of carrots, which improved their eyesight so they could spot the German planes more easily.

          • We hid our radar capabilities in the early days of the cold war

            That might be a reasonable (for values of reasonable) idea, IF we hadn't started using radar in WW2 (along with the Germans, Brits, Japanese, USSR)....

            In other words, radar wasn't much of a secret in the Cold War, since by the time it started, pretty much everyone had been using it for years.

      • Even some sort of peer review to say that you have at least solved the key problems.

    • by dissy ( 172727 )

      About the only thing that can ever happen with this patent is to be used by a troll in case anyone does really manage to build a fusion power plant that uses some of the same terms used in this science fiction document, such as lasers.

      The most wonderful thing about a patent troll attempting to sue me for successfully building a fusion power device, is that by definition I have just built a working fusion device!

      There is pretty much nothing that can prevent such a device from simply making the patent troll disappear, almost literally (OK technically the atoms the patent troll used to consist of would not be destroyed, they would simply be rearranged into a non-trollish and non-living form, diluted over a much larger volume of space than p

    • I actually think this is great. After all, the patent expires in what, 25 years? I doubt a single engine will be built in that time, but forever afterwards, this idea in the public domain. Consider the alternative, if someone waited to patent this thing until applications were actually ready. Then the patent would prevent competitors from entering the market. But because Boeing hasn't waited, it has basically ensured that nobody will use patent law to put the brakes on innovation when we get around to actua
  • If it's fusion as opposed to fissions wouldn't the fuel be some hydrogen isotope?
    • The most commonly assumed because it's of the easiest to initiate fusion reactions is D-T fusion. The "T" stands for radioactive tritium, i.e. the H^3 isotope.
    • by meglon ( 1001833 )
      H2+H3=H+He basically. But, the fusion part isn't what the counter argument is talking about.
    • It is pure fiction. As in: has been talked about for years but nobody can actually get it to work.

      Patents like this are a travesty and a long lineup of attorneys and examiners should be ashamed of themselves.

  • People worrying about some very short half-life Helium really, really have no clue what they are talking about. Just have a look at what gets _shipped_ in radioactive materials all the time, and there you may find something to worry. Or not, if packed properly.

  • Sustainable fusion reactions aren't quite reality yet.

  • I can't imagine the actual technology is real, but apparently the interest is real enough.
    • by HiThere ( 15173 )

      I don't even believe the intent is real. This looks like a truly stupid idea, even if you could get the technology to work. (If you've got a nice fusion reaction for your engine, why mess everything up by irradiating U238 with neutrons. It's make enough plutonium to be refined into something dangerous, but not enough to use directly.)

  • First lithium-ion battery fires [wikipedia.org], now this. What could go wrong?

  • And of course, one of the links cited is a story in CounterPunch that extensively quotes a Greenpeace official. What is CounterPunch, you might ask? First line in the Wikipedia article about it:

    CounterPunch is a monthly magazine published in the United States that covers politics in a manner its editors describe as "muckraking with a radical attitude".[1] It has been described as left-wing by both supporters and detractors.[2][3][4]

    This magazine is about as merely "left-wing" as the Death Valley in Mojave is merely "warm" in the summer.

    • by Hartree ( 191324 )

      I suspect this isn't about anti-nuke so much, as their Dice bosses pushing it because the posts using Counterpunch and The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists get lots of replies.

      Just wait till the Dice PHBs figure out that posting articles from Worldnet Daily get even more outraged replies.

  • The basic concept is similar to Freeman Dyson's Project Orion https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/... [wikipedia.org] which makes any patent subject to prior art claims. If they're patenting a specific technique, then good for them!

  • So many terrible mistakes...

    Deuterium and tritium are not in fact "fissile material", but are inert, non-radioactive materials. The "pellets" are cryogenic hydrogen gas isotopes fond in natural hydrogen.

    Fusion is the opposite of fission, and while it's a nuclear process.

    The U-238 that they would line the engines with is *also* not "fissile", and is not radioactive (the radioactive isotope is U-235), and is used for neutron absorption from the fusion process to turn the neutrons into heat so that no one is

    • So many more mistakes:

      Tritium is indeed radioactive with a half life of about 12.5 years (That's why it's great for making glow in the dark dials that require no light recharging or electricity. Only a tiny amount is needed, but a 12.5 year half life is pretty darn "hot" in the vernacular, and if you have a lot of it, you get a lot of energy release. It emits beta rays (high energy electrons) which aren't as much of a problem as gamma, but do cause surface burning, etc.).

      U238 is indeed radioactive. It's an

      • So many more mistakes:

        [ ... ]

        As previously noted: the Tritium will remain cryogenically suspended, or it will "boil off". It's not an issue.

        As for U-238: cadmium and Neodymium have the same level of "danger" as U-238, and are probably in your cell phone and the bluetooth headset you stick in your ear. They are closely followed by the following, to which you are generally exposed environmentally every day: xenon, molybdenum, barium, gadolinium, osmium, calcium, selenium, platinum, germanium, zirconium (quick, remove your rings!), tungsten, potassium, and bismuth.

        http://www.nndc.bnl.gov/chart/ [bnl.gov]

        But you know, feel free to get all pedantic, and we can throw in charcoal briquettes, if you want. Imagine the environmental horror, if a train carrying a bunch of Brita water filters derailed, instead of, you know, getting to the store, and having all your drinking water go through them.

        P.S.: Pedantry helps no one but alarmists, who want a technical detail hook on which to hang their argument.

  • Here is the actual patent:
    http://pdfpiw.uspto.gov/.piw?P... [uspto.gov]

    It's almost gibberish. It's full of sentences like (and I'm quoting)
    "Alternatively, when propellant 18c of FIG 4 is utilized in the embodiment of FIG 1, the laser system 22 of Fig. 1 may comprise one or more free-electron lasers for providing pulsed laser beams to vaporize, using pulsed laser beams, pellets each comprising the propellant 18c of Fig 4."

    Fig 1 is basically the drawing from the Business Insider article with the parts numbered. Fig 4 is

  • No way this is going to work with current materials. ICF is low density and there are no lightweight low-volume radiation shields available.

    The original fission powered proposals from the 1950s-1960s have more of a chance to actually work. This proposal is a Rube-Goldberg contraption.

  • I don't see anyone outside of the US military using it... and even them using it is a stretch.

    Short of that... Nope.

  • I've heard of lasers used in high gap distance spark plugs. They're supposed to ignite more fuel faster than high voltage electrical sparks but I have my doubt. But seriously, fusion?! You lose magnetic containment for one second and that engine blows apart. Worst idea ever.
  • by DrXym ( 126579 ) on Saturday July 11, 2015 @02:54AM (#50087409)
    How are they going to suspend the sharks on the wings?
  • The article says the patent specifies deuterium or tritium. Only if the engine uses tritium will there be any radioactive fuel to be spread.

  • The patent has generated fears of what might happen if an aircraft containing radioactive material as fuel were to crash ...

    This kind of patent on a general concept acts as a string disincentive to others to invest the resources needed to turn such concepts into practical implementations. Usually, that is undesirable. In this case, some seem to believe strongly that the concept should not be pursued. These people should be celebrating.

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