Dumbo: America’s First Forgotten NTR

Hello, and welcome back to Beyond NERVA! Today, in our first post in the Forgotten Reactors series, we’re going back to the beginnings of astronuclear engineering, and returning to nuclear thermal propulsion as well, looking at one of the reactors that’s had a cult following since the 1950s: the pachydermal rocket known as DUMBO.

In a nuclear thermal rocket, the path that the propellant takes has a strong impact on how hard it is to predict the way that the propellant will move through the reactor. Anyone who’s dealt with a corroded steam central heating system that won’t quit knocking, no matter how much you try, has dealt with the root of the problem: fluid behavior in a set of tubes only makes sense, and doesn’t cause problems, if you can make sure you know what’s going on, and that’s not only counter-intuitively hard, but it’s one of the subjects that (on the fine scale, in boundary conditions, and in other extremes) tends to lead towards chaos theory more than traditional fluid dynamics of ANY sort, much less adding in the complications of heat transport. However, if you can have gas flow longer through the reactor, you can get greater efficiency, less mass, and many other advantages.

This was first proposed in the Dumbo reactor at the beginning of Project Rover, alongside the far more familiar Kiwi reactors. Rather than have the gas flow from one end of the reactor to the other through straight pipes, like in Kiwi, the propellant in Dumbo would flow part of the way down the reactor core, then move radially (sideways) for a while, and then returns to flowing along the main axis of the reactor before exiting the nozzle. Because of the longer flow path, and a unique fuel element and core geometry, Dumbo seemed to offer the promise of both less volume and less mass for the same amount of thrust due to this difference in flow path. Additionally, this change offered the ability to place thermally sensitive materials more evenly across the reactor, due to the distribution of the cold propellant through the fuel element structure.

Dumbo ended up being canceled, in part, because the equations required to ensure that fatal flow irregularities wouldn’t occur, and the promised advantages didn’t materialize, either. None of this means that Dumbo was a bad idea, just an idea ahead of its time – an idea with inspiration to offer. Dumbo’s progeny live on. In fact, we’ve covered both the fuel element form AND the modern incarnation of the fuel geometry in the blog before!

With today’s knowledge of materials, advanced flow modeling, a cutting edge carbide fuel, and the beginnings of a Renaissance in nuclear design are breathing new life into the program even today, and the fundamental concept remains an attractive (if complex) one.

The First Forgotten Reactor

Early Dumbo cutaway drawing with flow path

In the early days of astronuclear engineering, there was a lot of throwing pasta at the wall, and looking to see what stuck. Many more slide rules than are involved in the average family’s spaghetti dinner preparations, to determine if the pasta was done enough, but a large number of designs were proposed, and eventually settled down into four potentially near-ish term useful: radioisotope power supplies, nuclear thermal propulsion, nuclear electric propulsion, and nuclear explosive propulsion (which we usually call nuclear pulse propulsion). Each of these ended up being explored extensively, and a number of other novel concepts have been proposed over the years as well. In the beginning, however, research tended toward either the NTR or NPP designs, with two major programs: ROVER and ORION. Orion was fairly narrowly focused from the beginning, owing to the problems of making an efficient, low-mass, easily deployable, reliable, and cheap shaped nuclear charge – the physics drove the design. Rover, on the other hand, had many more options available to it, and some competition as to what the best design was. Being the earliest days of the atomic era, which way to go, and the lack of knowledge in both nuclear and materials science often limited Rover as much as lack of fuel for their reactors did! This led to some promising designs being discarded. Some were resurrected, some weren’t, but the longest lived of the less-initially-preferred designs is our subject for today.

Dumbo was initially proposed in the literature in 1955. Two years later, a far more developed report was issued to address many of the challenges with the concept. The idea would continue to bounce around in the background of astronuclear engineering design until 1991, when it was resurrected… but more on that later. The concept was very different from the eventual NERVA concept (based on the Phoebus test reactor during Rover) in a number of ways, but two stand out:

1. Fuel element type and arrangement: The eventual Rover elements used uranium oxide or carbide suspended within graphite flour, which was then solidified, in Dumbo the fissile fuel was “metal.” However, the designers used this term differently than how it would be used today: rather than have the entire fuel element be metal, as we’ve seen in Kilopower, the fuel was uranium oxide pellets suspended in some type of high temperature metal. Today, we call this CERMET, for ceramic metal composite, and is the current favorite

2. Flow pattern: while both the initial Rover concepts (the Kiwi reactors) and the eventual NERVA engines used straight-through, axial propellant flow, which is simple to model mathematically, Dumbo’s flow path started the same (going from the nozzle end to the spacecraft end, cooling the reflectors and control components), but once it reached the top of the reactor and started flowing toward the nozzle, things changed. The flow would start going toward the nozzle through a central column, but be diverted through sets of corrugated fuel “washers” and spacers, making two 90 degree turns as it did so. This was called a “folded flow” system.

A host of other differences were also present throughout the reactor and control systems, but these two differences were the biggest when comparing the two nearly-simultaneously developed systems. The biggest advantages that were offered by the basic concept were the ability to go to higher temperatures in the core, and be able to have a more compact and less massive reactor for the same thrust level. Additionally, at the time it seemed like the testing would be far simpler to do, because it appeared that the number of tests needed, and the requirements of those tests, would make the testing program both simpler and cheaper compared to the competing Kiwi design concept. Sadly, these advantages weren’t sufficient to keep the project alive, and Kiwi ended up winning in the down-selection process.

In 1959, the Dumbo portion of Rover was canceled. There were two stated main reasons: first, there were no weight savings seen between the two systems upon in depth analysis; second, the manufacture of the components for the reactor required high precision out of at-the-time exotic materials. Another concern which was not mentioned at the time of cancellation but is a concern for certain variations on this reactor is the complex flow patterns in the reactor, something we’ll touch on briefly later.

Contrary to popular belief, Dumbo’s design isn’t dead. The fuel type has changed, and many of the nuclear design considerations for the reactor have also changed, but the core concept of a stacked set of fuel discs and a folded flow pattern through the core of the reactor remains. Originally revived as the Advanced Dumbo concept, proposed by Bill Kirk at LANL in 1990, which advocated for the use of carbide fuels to increase the reactor core temperature, as well as moving to a solid disc with grooves cut in it. This was proposed at the same time as many other concepts for nuclear thermal rockets in the bout of optimism in the early 1990s, but funding was given instead to the pebblebed NTR, another concept that we’ll cover. This in itself evolved into the Tricarbide Grooved Ring NTR currently under investigation at the Marshall Space Flight Center, under the direction of Brian Taylor and William Emrich, a concept we covered already in the carbide fuel post, but will briefly review again at the end of this post.

Is Dumbo Really a Metal Reactor?

At the time, this was called a metal reactor, but there’s metal and there’s metal. Metal fuels aren’t uncommon in nuclear reactor design. CANDU reactors are one of the most common reactor types in operation today, and use metal fuel. New designs, such as Kilopower in space and the Westinghouse eVinci reactor on Earth, also use metal fuels, alloying the uranium with another metal to improve either the chemical, thermal, or nuclear properties of the fuel itself. However, there are a few general problems (and exceptions to those problems) with metal fuels. In general, metal fuels have a low melting point, which is exactly what is undesirable in a nuclear thermal rocket, where core temperature is the main driving factor to efficiency, even ahead of propellant mass. Additionally, there can be neutronic complications, in that many metals which are useful for the fuel material components are also neutron poisons, reducing the available power of the reactions in the core. On the flip side, metals generally offer the best thermal conductivity of any class of material.

CERMET fuel micrograph, image NASA

Rather than a metal alloy fuel such as CANDU or Kilopower reactors, Dumbo used uranium oxide embedded in a refractory metal matrix. For those that have been following the blog for a while, this isn’t metal, it’s CERMET (ceramic-metal composite), the same type of fuel that NASA is currently exploring with the LEU NTP program. However, the current challenges involved in developing this fuel type are a wonderful illustration as to why it was considered a stretch in the 1950s. For a more in-depth discussion on CERMET fuels, check out our blog post on CERMET fuels in their modern incarnation here: https://beyondnerva.com/2018/01/19/leu-ntp-part-two-cermet-fuel-nasas-path-to-nuclear-thermal-propulsion/

The metal matrix of these fuel elements was meant to be molybdenum initially, with the eventual stretch goal of using tungsten. Tungsten was still brand new, and remains a challenge to manufacture in certain cases. Metallurgists and fabricators are still working on improving our ability to use tungsten, and isotopically enriching it (in order to reduce the number of neutrons lost to the metal) is still beyond the technical capabilities of American metallurgical firms. The Dumbo fuel elements were to be stamped in order to account for the complex geometries involved, although there was a new set of challenges involved with this forming process, including ensuring even distribution of the fissile fuel through the stamped material.

Folded Flow Reactors: Why, and How Hard?

Perhaps the biggest challenge in Dumbo wasn’t the material the fuel elements were made of, but the means of transferring the heat into the propellant. This was due to a couple of potential issues: first, the propellant passed through a more convoluted than typical path through the reactor, and second, the reactor was meant to be a laminar flow heat exchanger, the first time that this would have been done.

Dumbo fuel stack flow pattern, original image DOE

Each Dumbo core had a number of sets of fuel washers, moderator spacers, and securing components stacked into cylinders. The propellant would flow through the Be reflector, into the central opening of the fuel elements, and then flow out of the fuel elements, exiting around the perimeter of the cylinder. This would then be directed out the nozzle to provide thrust. By going through so many twists and turns, and having so much surface area available for heat transfer, the propellant could be more thoroughly heated than in a more typical prismatic fuel element, such as we see with the later Kiwi and Phoebus reactors. As with folded optics in telescopes, folded flow paths allow for more linear distance traveled in the same volume. A final advantage is that, because of the shape and arrangement of the washers, only a small amount of material would need to be tested, at a relatively minor 1.2 kW power level, to verify the material requirements of the reactor.

Timber Wind NTR, image DOE
Timber Wind NTR, image DOE

This sort of flow path isn’t unique to Dumbo. TRISO fuel, which use beads of fuel coated in pyrolitic carbon, fission product containment materials, and others have a very complex flow path through the reactor, increasing the linear distance traveled from one end of the core to the other well beyond the linear dimensions of the reactor. The differences mainly arise in the fuel geometry, not the concept of a non-axial flow.

The challenge is modeling the flow of the coolant through the bends in the reactor. It’s relatively easy to have hot spots develop if the fluid has to change directions in the wrong way, and conversely cold spots can develop as well. Ensuring that neither of these happen is a major challenge in heat exchanger design, a subject that I’m far from qualified to comment on.

The unique concept at the time was that this was meant to be a laminar flow heat exchanger (the fuel elements themselves form the heat exchanger). Laminar fluid flow, in broad terms, means that all of the molecules in the fluid are moving together. The opposite of laminar flow is turbulent flow, where eddies form in the fluid that move in directions other than the main direction of fluid flow. While the term may bring up images of white water rapids (and that’s not a bad place to start), the level of turbulence varies depending on the system, and indeed the level of turbulence in a heat exchanger modifies how much heat is transferred from the hot surface to the coolant fluid. Since the molecules are moving together in the same direction during laminar flow, the eddies that are a major component of heat transfer in some designs are no longer present, reducing the efficiency of heat transport through the working fluid. However, in some designs (those with a low Reynolds number, a characteristic of heat transfer capability) laminar flow can be more efficient than turbulent flow. For more discussion on the efficiency of laminar vs turbulent flow in heat exchangers, check out this paper by Patil et al: http://www.ijirset.com/upload/2015/april/76_Comparative-1.pdf .

For a rocket engine, the presence of laminar flow makes the rocket itself more efficient, since all of the molecules are moving in the same direction: straight out of the nozzle. The better collimated, or directional, the propellant flow is, the more thrust efficient the engine will be. Therefore, despite the fact that laminar flow is less efficient at transferring heat, the heat that is transferred can be more efficiently imparted as kinetic energy into the spacecraft.

In the case of Dumbo, the use of a large number of small orifices in the fuel elements allows for the complete transferrance of the heat of the nuclear reaction into the propellant, allowing for the efficient use of laminar flow heat exchange. This also greatly simplifies the basic design calculations of the fluid dynamics of the reactor, since laminar flow is easy to calculate, but turbulence requires complexity theory to fully model, a technique that didn’t exist at the time. However, establishing and maintaining laminar flow in the reactor was rightly seen as a major challenge at the time, and even over three decades later the challenges involved in this part of the design remained a point of contention about the feasibility of the laminar heat exchanger concept in this particular application.

Another distinct advantage to this layout is that the central annulus of each fuel element stack was filled with propellant that, while it had cooled the radial reflector, remained quite cool compared to the rest of the reactor. This meant that materials containing high hydrogen content, in this case a special form of plastic foam, could be distributed throughout the reactor. This meant that the neutron spectrum of the reactor could be more consistent, ensuring more uniform fissioning of the fuel across the active region of the reactor, and a material could be chosen that allows for greater neutron moderation than the graphite fuel element matrix of a Kiwi-type reactor. A variation of this concept can be seen as well with the Russian RD-0140 and -0411, which have all of their fuel around the outer circumference of the reactor’s pressure vessel and a large moderator column running down the center of the core. This allows the center of the core of the reactor to be far cooler, and contain far more themally sensitive materials as a result.

The Death of Dumbo

Sadly, the advantages of this reactor geometry weren’t sufficient to keep the program alive. In 1959, Dumbo gained the dubious distinction of being the first NTR concept that underwent study and development to be canceled in the US (perhaps even worldwide). Kiwi, the father and grandfather of all other Rover flight designs, was the winner, and the prismatic fuel element geometry remains the preferred design even today.

According to the Quarterly Status Report of LASL ROVER Program for Period Ending September 20, 1959, two factors caused the cancellation of the reactor: the first was that, despite early hopes, the reactor’s mass offered no advantages over an equivalent Kiwi reactor; the second was the challenges involved in the fabrication and testing of many of the novel components required, and especially the requirements of manufacturing and working the UO2/Mo CERMET fuel elements to a sufficiently precise degree, promised a long and difficult development process for the reactor to come to fruition.

Dumbo remained an interesting and attractive design to students of astronuclear engineering from that point on. Mentions of the concept occur in most summaries of NTR design history, but sadly, it never attracted funding to be developed. Even the public who are familiar with NTRs have heard of Dumbo, even if they aren’t familiar with any of the details. Just last month, there was a thread started on NASASpaceFlight Forum about Dumbo, and reviving the concept in the public eye once again.

The Rebirth of Dumbo: the Advanced Dumbo Rocket

Advanced Dumbo fuel element stack. Notice the change in fuel shape due to the different material properties. Image NASA

In 1991, there was a major conference attended by NASA, DOE, and DOD personnel on the subject of NTRs, and the development of the next generation NTR system for American use to go to Mars. At this conference, Bill Kirk of Los Alamos National Labs presented a paper on Dumbo, which he was involved in during its first iteration, and called for a revival of what he called a “folded flow washer type” NTR. This proposal, though, discarded the UO2/Mo CERMET fuel type in favor of a UC-ZrC carbide fuel element, to increase the fuel element maximum temperature. For a more in-depth look at carbide fuel elements, and their use in NTRs, check out the carbide fuel element post here. As we discussed in the carbide post, there are problems with thermal stress cracking and complex erosive behaviors in carbide fuel elements, but the unique form factor of the grooved disc allows for better distribution of the stresses, less continuous structural components to the fuel elements themselves, allowing for better thermal behavior and less erosion. Another large change from the classic Dumbo to the Advanced Dumbo was that the fluid flow through the reactor wasn’t meant to be laminar, and turbulent behavior was considered acceptable in this iteration. Other changes, including reflector geometry, were also incorporated, to modernize the concept’s support structures and ancillary equipment.

Timber Wind reactor, image Winchell Chung Atomic Rockets

Once again, though, the Dumbo concept, as well as the other concepts presented that had a folded flow pattern, were not selected. Instead, this conference led to the birth of the Timber Wind program, a pebble bed reactor design that we’ll cover in the future. Again, though, the concept of increasing the surface area compared to the axial length of the reactor was an inherent part of this design, and a TRISO pebble bed reactor shares some of the same advantages as a washer-type reactor would.

The Second Rebirth: the Tricarbide Grooved Ring NTR

Tricarbide Grooved Ring NTR fuel element stack. Notice the return of more complex geometry as materials design and fabrication of carbides has improved. Image NASA

Washer type reactors live today, and in many ways the current iteration of the design is remarkably similar to the Advanced Dumbo concept. Today, the research is centered in the Marshall Space Flight Center, with both Oak Ridge National Laboratory and the University of Tennessee being partners in the program. The Tricarbide Grooved Ring NTR (TCGR) was originally proposed in 2017, by Brian Taylor and Bill Emrich. While Bill Kirk is not mentioned in any of the papers on this new iteration of this reactor geometry, the carbide grooved washer architecture is almost identical to the Advanced Dumbo, so it’s reasonable to assume that the TCGR design is at least inspired by the Advanced Dumbo concept of 27 years before (Bill Emrich is a very old hand in NTR design and development, and was active at the time of the conference mentioned above).

The latest iteration, the TCGR, is a design that we covered in the carbide fuel element post, and because of this, as well as the gross similarities between the Advanced Dumbo and TCGR, we won’t go into many details here. If you want to learn more, please check out the TCGR page here: insert link. The biggest differences between the Advanced Dumbo and TCGR were the flow pattern and the fuel element composition.

The flow pattern is a simple change in one way, but in another way there’s a big difference: rather than the cold end of the reactor being the central annular portion of the fuel element stack, the cold end became the exterior of the stack, with the hot propellant/coolant running down the center of the core. This difference is a fairly significant one from a fluid dynamics point of view, where the gas flow from the “hot end” of the reactor itself to the nozzle turns from a more diffuse set of annular shaped gas flows into a series of columns coming out of each fuel element cluster; whether this is easier to work with or not, and what the relative advantages are, is beyond my understanding, but [take this with a grain of salt, this is speculation] it seems like the more collimated gas flows would be able to integrate more easily into a single gaseous flow through the nozzle.

Similarly to the simple but potentially profound change in the propellant flow path, the fuel element composition change is significant as well. Rather than just using the UC-ZrC fuel composition, the TCGR uses a mix of uranium, zirconium, and tantalum carbides, in order to improve both thermal properties as well as reduce stress fractures. For more information on this particular carbide type, check out the carbides post!

Funding is continuing for this concept, and while the focus is primarily on the CERMET LEU NTP engine under development by BWXT, the TCGR is still a viable and attractive concept, and one that balances the advantages and disadvantages of the washer-type, folded flow reactor. As more information on this fascinating reactor becomes available, I’ll post updates on the reactor’s page!

More Coming Soon!

This was the first of a new series, the Forgotten Reactors. Next week will be another post in the series, looking at the SP-100 reactor. We won’t look at the reactor in too much depth, because it shares a lot of similarities with the SNAP-50 reactor’s final iteration; instead we’ll look at the most unique thing about this reactor: it was designed to be both launched and recovered by the Space Shuttle, leading to some unique challenges. While the STS is no longer flying, this doesn’t mean that the lessons learned with this design process are useless, because they will apply to a greater or lesser extent to every reactor recovery operation that will be performed in the future, and well as the challenges of having a previously-turned-on reactor in close proximity to the crew of a spacecraft with minimal shielding between the payload compartment and the crew cabin.


Dumbo — A Pachydermal Rocket Motor, DOE ID LAMS-1887 McInteer et al, Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory 1955

A Metal Dumbo Rocket Reactor, DOE ID LA-2091, Knight et al, Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory 1957 https://inis.iaea.org/collection/NCLCollectionStore/_Public/07/265/7265972.pdf?r=1&r=1

Quarterly Status Report of LASL Rover Program for Period Ending Sept 20, 1959, LAMS-2363

Dumbo, a Pachydermal Rocket Motor [Advanced Dumbo], Kirk, Los Alamos National Laboratory 1992 https://ntrs.nasa.gov/archive/nasa/casi.ntrs.nasa.gov/19920001882.pdf

Investigation of a Tricarbide Grooved Ring Fuel Element for a Nuclear Thermal Rocket, NASA ID 20170008951 Taylor et al NASA MSFC 2017
Conference paper: https://ntrs.nasa.gov/archive/nasa/casi.ntrs.nasa.gov/20170008951.pdf
Presentation slides: https://ntrs.nasa.gov/archive/nasa/casi.ntrs.nasa.gov/20170008940.pdf

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4 Responses

  1. Fascinating article. There’s been so much done, and so long ago, that people can claim newness on these essentially old concepts!

    I did have a question. Where did you find the information that the evinci reactor uses metal fuel? Early versions of megapower which they licensed used uo2, but it’s intriguing they made the switch.

  2. One of the things that killed Dumbo was that the bean-counters
    required that it be tested with the nozzle that was designed for Nerva.
    I’ve also read that Dumbo sent more fuel out the exhaust.
    Dumbo needed those longer paths because it had smaller channels,
    smaller than the boundary layers in Nerva’s turbulent flow,
    thereby reducing thermal resistance.
    Reducing thermal resistance meant a lower surface
    temperature for a given average fluid temperature.

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