University of Alabama-Huntsville (UAH) aerospace engineers have begun developing a nuclear fusion impulse rocket engine based on a composite of materials very similar to Star Trek’s dilithium.
Describing the fuel, Ross Cortez, a Ph.D candidate at the university, says:
the fusion fuel we’re focusing on is deuterium [a stable isotope of hydrogen] and Li6 [a lithium isotope] in a crystal structure. That’s basically dilithium crystals we’re using… “Star Trek fans love it, especially when we call the concept an impulse drive, which is what it is.
Now, granted, this engine won’t be able to go anywhere close to the speed that the Enterprise or Voyager did. But it compares to real space propulsion technologies quite favorably. The team is hoping that by 2030, the technology will be able to power trips from Earth to Mars in just 3 months. That’s less than half the time that most missions take, and it might just be possible, thanks to the 62,600 Mph that the device should be able to achieve.
Their current design would have any vehicles built in orbit, rather than here on Earth. That lets you build structures and use techniques that are impossible on a planet with heavy gravity.
The technology relies on a magnetic thrust nozzle to direct plasma as fuel. Because of the temperature that plasma exists at, you can’t let it touch metal, because the metal would be overwhelmed by the heat. For the fusion, the team is investigating something called z-pinch fusion. In short, an array of lithium wires are vaporized by high voltages, and the magnetic bottle squeezes the resulting plasma together until it fuses around a core of deuterium and lithium. It’s a tricky thing to pull off, but if they can, this could be the propulsion method future spacecraft rely on.