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Boeing Patents Laser-Powered Propulsion System

The US Patent and Trademark Office approved an application from Robert Budica, James Herzberg, and Frank Chandler of the Boeing Company for a laser and nuclear driven airplane engine. This is Boeing’s latest idea to stay on top of all the new, efficient ways that airplane makers are powering their products.

The Boeing Dreamliner is powered by turbofan engines that use a series of fans and turbines to compress air and ignite fuel to produce thrust. This newly patented engine idea will hypothetically work by firing high-power lasers at radioactive material, such as deuterium and tritium. The lasers will vaporize the radioactive material and cause a fusion reaction, or a small thermonuclear explosion. Byproducts of the reaction are hydrogen and helium which leave through the back of the engine under high pressure. Then, thrust is produced.

Inside the wall of the engine’s thruster chamber, uranium 238 reacts with high-energy neutrons that were produced by the nuclear reaction. This reaction generates immense heat. The heat is then harnessed by the engine by running coolant along the other side of the combustion chamber. This heat-energized coolant is sent through a turbine and generator that produces electricity to power the engine's lasers. It’s hard to say exactly when or even if this engine will come into production, but the idea is an interesting one to think about.

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