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Real-life dilithium drive could cut Mars travel from 6 months to 6 weeks

April 23, 2013 11:06am
Star Trek fans will definitely get a kick out of this: researchers are working on a fusion impulse engine that runs on real "dilithium crystals" to cut the travel time to Mars from six months to just six weeks.
A team from the University of Huntsville in Alabama said it is focusing on deuterium, a stable isotope of hydrogen, and Li6, a stable isotope of lithum, as fuel, according to a report on BusinessInsider.
"The fusion fuel we're focusing on is deuterium (and) Li6 in a crystal structure. That's basically dilithium crystals we're using," said team member and aerospace engineering PH.D. candidate Ross Cortez.
They added this is the kind of engine needed to propel humans outside low-Earth orbit and to Mars and beyond.

Star Trek
In the "Star Trek" universe, dilithium crystals power starships' impulse engines and eventually allow the vessels to achieve warp speeds.

It is supposed to be crystalline mineral used to regulate the matter-antimatter reaction in a ship's warp core, thereby making warp travel possible.
But Cortez admitted they are still a long way from achieving a "break-even" propulsion system.
“(Potentially) the massive payoff is that energy gain, where we get more energy out of the reaction than we put in. This is what everyone has pursued since the time we first started thinking about this,” he said.

Military funding
However, the researchers may have to repurpose military nuclear testing equipment while assembling the “Charger-1 Pulsed Power Generator" - which was previously used on a contract with the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) for research on effects of nuclear weapons explosions.
Also, the sponsors of the fusion engine project have ties to military funding, such as the Aerophysics Research Center on Redstone Arsenal, University of Alabama at Huntsville’s Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, Boeing and Marshall Space Flight Center’s Propulsion Engineering Lab.
Business Insider also cited an article on CNET as saying there are obstacles such as converting the power generated by fusion into engine thrust.
It added the spacecraft using impulse drive would have to be assembled in space.
Refurbished components
UAHuntsville engineering professor and project head Dr. Jason Cassibry said the team's first job is to clean up the components, which had been sitting in a lab for nearly 10 years, then being shipped across the country.
The refurbishment will include replacing some 100 large resistors, and securing 15,000 gallons of transformer oil for the Marx tank, which holds the capacitors and prevents arcing.
Cassibry said Charger 1 "won’t come close to break even, but will give us ability to conduct experiments that optimize fusion energy output.”
“Our ultimate goal is to build a break even fusion system that will propel humans throughout the solar system,” he added. — TJD, GMA News
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