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Nuclear Powered-Jet, A Sky-Whale Faster Than Speed Of Sound

It could take you from London Heathrow and have you moving onto the air bridge at New York’s John F Kennedy airport just three hours later. It would whisk you in no small ease and luxuriously so if you are in first class at speeds touching 2,300m/h (3,680km/h), the Atlantic Ocean waving below your feet. The Flash Falcon looks like a spacecraft from the video game franchise Halo, is an innovative peg to fill empty room left by the retirement of the Supersonic Concorde in 2003. No models have been built, though, the design so far lives only in the thoughts of Spanish designer Oscar Vinals, who also designed a ‘whale-shaped’ enormous airliner.

 Source: Oscar Vinals

The Flash Falcon, Vinals’ idea imagines, would transport 250 passengers at Mach 3, in an airframe more than 130feet (39 meters) longer than a Concorde and with a wingspan two times wider than the airframe. Its engines would even be capable of tilting up to 20 degrees to help the aircraft takeoff and land like a helicopter. At the center of the Flash Falcon is something even more innovative; Vinals' aircraft is designed to fly on nuclear power, with a fusion reactor thrusting energy to its six electric engines.

Vinals tells BBC Future, "I consider nuclear fusion could be the best future source to gain great amounts of electric energy. I think nuclear fusion could be the finest future source to obtain great amounts of electric energy.  At the same time, it’s ‘green’ without producing dangerous waste."

Vinals says, "Today, we have a very clear knowledge about how nuclear fusion works; there are many missions working on it, such as Tokamak, Iter, and Stellarator. I am very hopeful that in the next five-to-seven years we will have the first stable and creative fusion reactor."

Whether the long-expected key to cheap and plentiful power reaches quite so quickly, Vinals’ concept recovers a dream that has pre-occupied aircraft designers since the 1950s, how to set a nuclear reactor into an aircraft.

The US Air Force looked at changing B-36 bombers with a nuclear power-plant (Source: Getty Images)

The discovery of nuclear fission reactors conveyed the promise of inexpensive energy not just to the home, but to ships; in the 1950s the first reactors small enough to be used on a vessel arrived at service. Within only a few years, they’d shrunk plenty that they could be used to power a submarine. The 1950s was one of the unique ages of aircraft design, with gigantic leaps of technology, fuelled both the airline market developing across a post-war world and the Cold War. As strains between the US and the Soviet Union increased, the US searched for a way to keep their long-range nuclear bombers in the air for as long as possible, building them far less vulnerable to about on their airbases.
Nuclear reactors could ideally stay in the air for months at a time, as long as you had an aircraft large enough to have a team that could fly and sleep in shifts. But, says Simon Weeks of the Aerospace Technology Institute, there are some foremost issues that come with placing a fission reactor on an aircraft. Not only would you need a "closed-loop system", a reactor that recycles (reuses) the waste fuel, but it would also need huge amounts of heavy shielding. "Nuclear fission creates a lot of neutrons, and they can be very damaging," says Weeks.

The single NB-36H flew lots of missions, but the reactor was never used to fly the aircraft (Source: US Department of Defense)

The only nuclear-powered aircraft that flew in the West was a seriously modified Convair B-36 bomber in the early 1950s. The previous gargantuan aircraft was more weighed down with 11 tons of shielding to keep radiation far away. Though the NB-36H flew 47 times, the reactor on the ship was only tested in the air, and never really used to power the aircraft. The potentially catastrophic properties of a nuclear fission-powered aircraft crashing curtailed for more development. And while military teams might have followed orders and operated a nuclear-powered aircraft, the idea of passengers gladly stepping on-board a plane with a nuclear reactor only a few meters away seems impossible. The nuclear-powered airliner stayed in the artists' impressions of what air travel might look like in 50 or 100 years' time. It’s not nuclear fission that will power Vinals’ idea, however. Rather than making a chain reaction like nuclear fission, the fusing of two or more atoms into a larger one generates more energy but does not create infecting waste products.

Vinals is not discouraged by the fact that nuclear fusion remains scientifically out of reach. Concepts like the Flash Falcon do not have to be weighed down with the limits of the technology we have today; part of their role is to picture what designs might look like using technologies we have not yet mastered.
Fusion is still some way off, however. Week says, "Nuclear fusion is always 50 years away."

Reactors are still in the experimental phase; for example, the Iter project now being built in France is still some 10 years away from being started. Even if such reactors promised to be practical, and can produce the inexpensive, clean energy, that is only the foundation of the puzzle.

Week says, "The task then is making it very small and very lightweight. Between the years of 1940s and the 1980s, we saw significant advance progress in nuclear fission technology, and that was relatively quickly. We’ve been working on fusion since the 1950s, and we’ve not yet built a practical, working reactor. That’s still 20 or 30 years away."

The US XB-70 was another US bomber considered for nuclear trials (Source: Getty Images)

Making a movable nuclear fusion reactor that produces enough energy to power an aircraft, a supersonic aircraft, in the case of Vinals’ project, is a far better challenge than constructing an airliner that could travel at three times the speed of sound, says Weeks.

Any another fuel has big shoes to fill, kerosene, the fuel used in aircraft engines, is an extremely versatile propellant. Week says, "It is an enormously good medium for producing energy. It is energy-dense, it’s informal to control, and it carries out well across a whole range of temperatures. And it can similarly be used for other things, not just fuel. It can also be used as a coolant, as oil, and also as a hydraulic fluid."

Climate change may be a demanding reason to find different fuels for aircraft, but the unbelievable amount of energy is required to fly an aircraft at such high speeds. The kind of batteries used on aircraft like the Solar Impulse can only produce 1/20th of the energy from a comparable weight of kerosene. Nuclear fusion-powered aircraft might be just too hard to pull off in the coming century. Much more likely, says Weeks, will be systems of hybrid power; for example, the propeller that helps produce energy to be kept on board and used to help the aircraft take off. The Flash Falcon is too ambitious a project to fly with today’s technology. But air-travel history is littered with successes once thought impossible. Nuclear fusion might, one day, join them.

More of Oscar Vinales' images of the Flash Falcon can be seen here.

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