Outlandish Boeing patent wants to create a laser-firing nuclear jet engine

14 Jul 2015

As far as technology that sounds like something only available to the dreams of science-fiction goes, Boeing’s latest patent featuring a nuclear engine that uses lasers certainly falls into that category.

While patent trolling and patent stealing are hot topics in this day and age in the tech industry, few could hold it against the aircraft manufacturer for patenting its ‘laser-powered propulsion system’ that promises an awful lot for technology that hasn’t been mastered yet.

According to its patent issued online, the engine, which looks like a standard jet engine, will have a series of powerful lasers focusing their energy beams on one particular point in this engine.

According to Ars Technica, this single point will house what amounts to a nuclear fusion generator comprised of a pellet combination of deuterium and tritium, causing a nuclear reaction that produces enormous quantities of energy.

This energy created in the form of a gas is then pushed out the back of the engine to generate some serious thrust for whatever is being powered by it, whether that be a future jetliner or even a spacecraft.

The Convair NB-36H nuclear aircraft

The Convair NB-36H nuclear aircraft. Image via Wikimedia Commons

Completely self-sustaining

Interestingly, it contains elements that would suggest it is designed to power itself in a self-sustaining fashion thanks to a heat exchanger system that would take any excess heat using it to power a turbine, which would power the laser systems.

While the technology for actually creating such an engine is a long way away from being commercialised, this doesn’t mark the first time that aircraft manufacturers have dabbled with nuclear-powered aircraft.

In fact, both the US and the Soviet Union actually launched aircraft prototypes that placed nuclear reactors on these aircraft (the US’s Convair NB-36H and the Soviet Union’s Tu-119) to provide power for their jet and turboprop engines.

However, the projects were soon scrapped due to the inherent dangers to crew and the development of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM).

In the meantime, to give a nice animated illustration of how the engine works, here is YouTuber Patent Yogi.

Plane afterburner image via Shutterstock

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic