COULD THIS BE THE WORLD’S FIRST NUCLEAR-POWERED AIRLINER? (NO.)

On January 5, 2011, I wrote the following:

“Designer” is a dangerous term, because it usually means some crazy person with ridiculous ideas who then makes CAD drawings or actual mock-ups of his crazy ideas and yet, for some goddamn reason, I appear to be the only person to notice that said idea is crazy.

That was 65 months ago, and it still holds true. “Designers” with no actual science knowledge or reality filter of any kind are the bread and butter of this blog, whether it’s a transparent toaster or a whole bunch of bullshit cooking tools or a pedal-powered submarine or magnetic roads or a rocket that doesn’t exist or a redesigned bicycle or concept cars or a fridge that tramples every law of physics it comes across like a hormonal bull in a sexy china shop. And that’s like a third of the total posts under my “design” category.

But people take these seriously. People write newspaper articles breathlessly extolling the virtues of a moon elevator or solar panels in space or a rocket that will take us to Alpha Centauri, powered only by kale, even though the crackpot that thought it up has no qualifications other than being able to make pretty 3D renderings on his computer.

And that brings us to this.

BBC_-_Future_-_Could_this_be_the_first_nuclear-powered_airliner_

There’s an old adage that any headline that ends in a question mark can be answered with a “no.” That’s not going to change here. Let’s dive in.

First of all, here’s what the thing looks like.

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You’ll notice that that’s a rendering, which makes sense because it doesn’t exist. Keep that in mind though. Here’s what BBC Future has to say.

It could whisk you from London Heathrow and have you stepping onto the air bridge at New York’s John F Kennedy airport just three hours later. It would take you in no small comfort—luxuriously so, if you’re in first class—at speeds approaching 2,300mph (3,680km/h), the Atlantic Ocean racing below your feet.

Sure. It could do that. If it existed. Which it doesn’t.

The Flash Falcon, looking like a spacecraft from the video game franchise Halo, is a futuristic peg to fill the hole left by the retirement of the Supersonic Concorde in 2003.

As a quick aside, it doesn’t look a goddamn thing like any of the flying vehicles from Halo, but I’m pretty sure the author just picked a random futuristic fictional franchise and went with that.

h1a-pelican-1920x1080-4ec95ac7461c49a6bb3f811fd17af27a

I dunno, it has wings, right? Go with that.

More importantly, there is a very good reason that there is a “hole” left by Concorde, and that’s that Concorde didn’t work very well. It cost $12,000 per ticket to fly round-trip from New York to Europe. It gulped fuel at the rate of almost 17L/100km per passenger (subsonic medium-haul planes like the Boeing 787-8 use around 3L/100km per passenger). It overheated heated up due to the extreme speeds at which it traveled, reducing its expected lifespan to about a quarter of contemporary subsonic planes. [EDIT: it’s been pointed out to me that Concorde didn’t overheat, technically speaking, since the heating problem was accounted for when it was built. The heat was a source of accelerated fatigue nonetheless.] It had structural and control issues at high speeds. It was too loud to fly at full speed over residential areas. Some of these issues can be solved with better engineering. Some can’t.

No prototypes have been built though – the design so far lives only in the imagination of Spanish designer Oscar Vinals

And there’s the problem right there. Oscar Viñals is not an engineer. He’s not a pilot. He’s not even a scientist. His previous brainchildren include the “Progress Eagle”—

e055eb20804291.5632679ba6d37which is very pretty but is supposed to run on “the future advanced technologies of the 21st century, based in Quantum proprieties [sic] (latest advances in many different ambits like, nanoparticles-properties & applications, knowledge about subatomic particles).” I know English isn’t his first language, but that’s word salad. And his other plane is the “Sky Whale”—

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Which appears to be the size of a city block, and “could be equipped with a new advanced technologies from alloys, ceramic or fiber composites, carbon nanotube and fiber optic cabling to self-healing skin, hybrid electric engines, active wings , double fuselages and virtual reality windows with adaptable opacity and capable to create electric energy  with micro solar cells in hexagonal geometry like a part of structure’s ceiling.” Again, that’s just every technology word Oscar could think of, crammed into one very long sentence.

Oscar of course has no reasonable explanation for how any of these planes could fly, land, take off, or even support their own weight, but he makes really nice renderings so his work gets media coverage. But back to the Flash Falcon (FF).

The Flash Falcon, Vinals’ concept imagines, would carry 250 passengers at Mach 3, in an airframe more than 130ft (39 metres) longer than a Concorde and with a wingspan twice as wide. Its engines would even be able to tilt up to 20 degrees to help the aircraft take-off and land like a helicopter.

I’m not sure where BBC got those dimensions, since they don’t appear on Oscar’s original page, but I took a look at the closest thing to an overhead view he provides and I don’t think they’re right. If it’s as long as he says (332 feet), then it’s roughly 227 feet wide.

dimensionsThat would make it nearly as wide as an Airbus A-380, the current largest airliner in existence, and almost 70 feet longer. It’s gigantic.

And secondly, a 20-degree tilt is not nearly enough to take off vertically “like a helicopter.” At first I thought the BBC article was exaggerating or misunderstanding his claims, but no. In his original design page, Oscar describes “The possibility to Take-off & Landing vertically like a Harrier jump jet.” That’s a pretty clear comparison, because Harriers already exist. Here’s one doing its thing.

giphy

As you can see from that extremely useful gif that I accidentally stumbled across, the Harrier differs in two ways from the concept described for the FF. Firstly, its engine nozzles point straight down. That’s really important. You can’t generate lift straight up unless you can generate thrust straight down. Pretty obvious, really. And secondly, the Harrier generates thrust from the front, back, and both sides, so it can stay level. There is no reference to the FF’s ability to do that, probably because Oscar doesn’t know what the fuck he’s talking about.

[EDIT 08/01/16: That gif isn’t a Harrier, it’s an F-35 Lightning, a much newer plane. The principles of the VTOL system are the same, though.]
At the heart of the Flash Falcon is something even more revolutionary; Viñals’ aircraft is designed to fly on nuclear power, with a fusion reactor pumping energy to its six electric engines.
“I think nuclear fusion could be the best future source to obtain great amounts of electric energy,” Viñals tells BBC Future. “At the same time, it’s ‘green’ without creating dangerous waste.”

Ok, technically he’s right. I suspect that Oscar has skimmed the Wikipedia page for nuclear fusion. Nuclear fusion is green, in that its only byproducts (assuming we’re talking about hydrogen fusion, the only kind that’s remotely plausible) are helium and heat. And it’s also theoretically a great source of a huge amount of energy. One gram of deuterium, if fused completely, would release a billion joules of energy, the equivalent of 9,000 gallons of jet fuel. That’s impressive. But then Oscar goes off the rails a bit.

“Today, we have a very clear idea about how nuclear fusion works; there are many projects working on it, such as Tokamak, Iter, and Stellarator. I’m very optimistic that in the next five-to-seven years we will have the first stable and productive fusion reactor,” says Viñals.

Wrong. Wrong wrong wrong wrong wrong. Here’s a very brief explanation of how hydrogen fusion works. Hydrogen atoms (like all atoms) don’t want to touch each other. The closer you push them together, they more they resist. If you push them together hard enough, they fuse into a helium atom, and all that force that was keeping them apart is released as energy. If you can collect that energy, you have yourself a generator.

img6

The problem is that it’s really really hard to push hydrogen atoms together that hard. Technically we’d be working with deuterium, which is a heavier version of hydrogen that’s easier to fuse, but you still need temperatures of about a million degrees Kelvin to make that happen. That means you have to raise the temperature of the deuterium to a million degrees, and that means you have to suspend it in magnetic fields because there’s no material in the world that can hold million-degree plasma. And that means that you need incredibly powerful electromagnets to generate those magnetic fields, as well as a preposterous amount of energy to heat the plasma in the first place, to get fusion going. We’ve done that. It’s shockingly inefficient—the biggest facility in the world, JET, needs 1000 megawatts to get to full temperature, and has only produced 16 megawatts in return. We do know how to create fusion power, we just don’t know how to get more out of it than we put in.

But here’s how I know Oscar hasn’t read the whole Wikipedia article: he says “there are many projects working on it, such as Tokamak, Iter, and Stellarator.” That makes it sounds like those are three specific projects. They’re not. Tokamak is a Russian word, made by borrowing syllables from the words “toroidal’naya kamera s magnitnymi katushkami,” which means “toroidal chamber with magnetic coils.” A tokamak is a type of fusion reactor, invented in the 1950s. There have been 33 built in the last 60-ish years, and a few more are in the works. But “tokamak” is not a project. Neither is “stellarator.” That’s another type of reactor, similar to the tokamak. There are a few of those in operation, but they’re not as popular as tokamaks. This is like saying “wind energy is viable; there are many projects working on it, such as Windmill.”

ITER is a specific project, but it’s under construction. It won’t be finished until (optimistically) 2019, and it won’t start experiments until 2027, and it definitely won’t generate a net gain in energy. It’s not built to. Even if it did, that’s 11 years out, not “five to seven.” And even if it existed in five years and was capable of generating profitable fusion power…

iter

It’s fucking gigantic. See the blue speck at the bottom of that picture? That’s a person. Even if we could snap our fingers and make a self-sustaining fusion reactor right this second—capable of generating more power than it uses—we are decades, if not more, from fitting it into an airplane.

Vinals is not dissuaded by the fact that nuclear fusion remains technologically out of reach. Concepts like the Flash Falcon don’t have to be weighed down with the limitations of the tech we have today; part of their role is to imagine what designs might look like using technologies we haven’t yet mastered.

I couldn’t disagree more. If a concept is to be taken seriously, it has to be weighed down by the limitations of technology. Fusion isn’t just a technology we “haven’t yet mastered,” it’s not even close. We can barely achieve ignition, and even then only with massive amounts of energy and money. For the money we’ve put into ITER, we could have bought 36 Airbus A-380s. I’m not arguing that one is a better use of money than the other, but no one’s going to spend $14 billion on one airplane.

Regardless, you can’t just say “it’ll use fusion,” given how implausible that is. I might as well say “Here’s an airplane, far bigger than any that currently exists, that’ll go 40,000 miles an hour and be powered by matter-antimatter annihilation.” Sure, antimatter has only ever been produced under absurdly precise conditions, by a reactor nine miles wide, buried underground in France, and that experiment released so little energy that we’d have to replicate it a thousand times to melt a single snowflake.

6895872661_709d0a3635_o.jpg

Suck it.

But it’s a concept! I’m not bound by the limitations of modern tech! I can say what I want!

No. Unacceptable. If you want to be taken seriously, you have to limit your “concepts” to things that have a chance of actually existing.

To their credit, BBC also interviewed Simon Weeks, an actual scientist who knows actual things about fusion and airplanes. Simon is in this article mainly to poke airplane-sized holes in Oscar’s idea. Here’s some samples:

Nuclear fusion is always 50 years away

So much for five to seven.

The challenge then is making it very small and very lightweight

Meaning small enough to put in an airplane. A Rolls-Royce Trent 900 engine is 18 feet long and weighs 14,000 pounds—the size of a small bus. ITER will be 240 feet high and weigh 23,000 tons—the size of an airliner itself, and more than 70 times heavier. Obviously, putting a nuclear reactor in an airplane is a whole different ball game from actually inventing it in the first place, which we haven’t done.

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.

NOT FIVE TO SEVEN, OSCAR.

And finally, existing jet fuel is really good at what it does already. Fusion can’t just be good, it has to be better than kerosene. And that won’t be easy. Here’s Simon again:

It’s an incredibly good medium for creating energy. It’s energy-dense, it’s easy to handle, and it performs well across a whole range of temperatures. And it can also be used for other things, not just fuel. It can be used as a coolant, as a lubricant, and even as a hydraulic fluid.

And there are other issues as well. Oscar casually throws out a figure of 2300 mph, ignoring the fact that no plane has ever gone that fast. The current airspeed record for a fixed-wing, air-breathing plane is 2193 mph, set by the SR-71 Blackbird in 1976.

61374-pappas1Look at that profile. That is two engines the size of school buses, held together by a chair. The SR-71 is a plane built for speed and speed alone. At top speed, the titanium skin reaches temperatures of 600º Fahrenheit. It has a radar profile of 10 square meters—smaller than a standard parking space. It is the fastest thing we’ve ever built that isn’t a rocket, and Oscar thinks his plane, almost 12 times bigger, will go faster. With 200 people on board.

And what about noise? Part of the problem with Concorde was that the sonic boom over residential areas was unbearably loud. There’s no way around that. Any plane going faster than about 750 miles an hour (depending on conditions) is going to make a shockwave of sound. Hopefully you can be over the ocean and high enough that it’s not a problem before you hit supersonic speeds, but it’s still going to be a problem.

Never mind the additional issues that come with an imaginary plane. We don’t know how much it’ll cost, because it doesn’t exist. We don’t know what it’ll weigh, because it doesn’t exist. We don’t know how much runway it’ll need to take off, or if airport terminals will need to be redesigned to accommodate its size, because it stubbornly persists in not existing.

Will nuclear fusion ever be a viable energy source? Probably, though maybe not in my lifetime. And when it does come to fruition, people will be so excited about a practically free, literally infinite source of energy that it’ll be a while before they put it in an airplane, even if that’s still a good option. It may be that using ground-based fusion reactors to charge batteries, then using batteries to fly planes, is a better way to use it.

But will nuclear fusion exist in five years? Will it be ready to put in a plane? Will this plane ever get built? Is this, as the BBC asks, the first nuclear-powered airliner?

Absolutely not.

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One thought on “COULD THIS BE THE WORLD’S FIRST NUCLEAR-POWERED AIRLINER? (NO.)

  1. sarah says:

    Please post something about how terrible our candidates are or the debate. Politics are a touchy subject so I think it’s perfectly fine to treat them comically.

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