Hello, and welcome back to Beyond NERVA! Really quickly, I apologize that I haven’t published more recently. Between moving to a different state, job hunting, and the challenges we’re all facing with the current medical situation worldwide, this post is coming out later than I was hoping. I have been continuing to work in the background, but as you’ll see, this engine isn’t one that’s easy to take in discrete chunks!
Today, we jump into one of the most famous designs of advanced nuclear thermal rocket: the “nuclear lightbulb,” more properly known as the closed cycle gas core nuclear thermal rocket. This will be a multi-part post on not only the basics of the design, but a history of the way the design has changed over time, as well as examining both the tests that were completed as well as the tests that were proposed to move this design forward.
One of the challenges that we saw on the liquid core NTR was that the fission products could be released into the environment. This isn’t really a problem from the pollution side for a space nuclear reactor (we’ll look at the extreme version of this in a couple months with the open cycle gas core), but as a general rule it is advantageous to avoid it most of the time to keep the exhaust mass low (why we use hydrogen in the first place). In ideal circumstances, and with a high enough thrust-to-weight ratio, eliminating this release could even enable an NTR to be used in surface launches.
That’s the potential of the reactor type we’re going to be discussing today, and in the next few posts. Due to the complexities of this reactor design, and how interconnected all the systems are, there may be an additional pause in publication after this post. I’ve been working on the details of this system for over a month and a half now, and am almost done covering the basics of the fuel itself… so if there’s a bit of delay, please be understanding!
The closed cycle gas core uses uranium hexafluoride (UF6) as fuel, which is contained within a fused silica “bulb” to form the fuel element – hence the popular name “nuclear lightbulb”. Several of these are distributed through the reactor’s active zone, with liquid hydrogen coolant flowing through the silica bulb, and then the now-gaseous hydrogen passing around the bulbs and out the nozzle of the reactor. This is the most conservative of the gas core designs, and only a modest step above the vapor core designs we examined last time, but still offers significantly higher temperatures, and potentially higher thrust-to-weight ratios, than the VCNTR.
A combined research effort by NASA’s Lewis (now Glenn) Research Center and United Aircraft Corporation in the 1960s and 70s made significant progress in the design of these reactors, but sadly with the demise of the AEC and NASA efforts in nuclear thermal propulsion, the project languished on the shelves of astronuclear research for decades. While it has seen a resurgence of interest in the last few decades in popular media, most designs for spacecraft that use the lightbulb reactor reference the efforts from the 60s and 70s in their reactor designs- despite this being, in many ways, one of the most easily tested advanced NTR designs available.
Today’s blog post focuses on the general shape of the reactor: its basic geometry, a brief examination of its analysis and testing, and the possible uses of the reactor. The next post will cover the analytical studies of the reactor in more detail, including the limits of what this reactor could provide, and what the tradeoffs in the design would require to make a practical NTR, as well as the practicalities of the fuel element design itself. Finally, in the third we’ll look at the testing that was done, could have been done with in-core fission powered testing, the lessons learned from this testing, and maybe even some possibilities for modern improvements to this well-known, classic design.
With that, let’s take a look at this reactor’s basic shape, how it works, and what the advantages of and problems with the basic idea are.
Nuclear Lightbulb: Nuclear Powered Children’s Toy (ish)
For those of us of a certain age, there was a toy that was quite popular: the Easy-Bake Oven. This was a very simple toy: an oven designed for children with minimal adult supervision to be able to cook a variety of real baked goods, often with premixed dry mixes or simple recipes. Rather than having a more normal resistive heating element as you find in a normal oven, though, a special light bulb was mounted in the oven, and the waste heat from the bulb would heat the oven enough to cook the food.
The closed cycle gas core NTR takes this idea, and ramps it up to the edges of what materials limits allow. Rather than a tungsten wire, the heat in the bulb is generated by a critical mass of uranium hexafluoride, a gas at room temperature that’s used in, among other things, fissile fuel enrichment for reactors and other applications. This is contained in a fused silica bulb made up of dozens of very thin tubes – not much different in material, but very different in design, compared to the Easy-Bake Oven – which contains the fissile fuel, and prevents the fission products from escaping. The fuel turns from gas to plasma, and forms a vortex in the center of the fuel element.
To further protect the bulb from direct contact with the uranium and free fluorine, a gaseous barrier of noble gas (either argon or neon) is injected between the fuel and the wall of the bulb itself. Because of the extreme temperatures, the majority of the electromagnetic radiation coming off the fuel isn’t in the form of infrared (heat), but rather as ultraviolet radiation, which the silica is transparent to, minimizing the amount of energy that’s deposited into the bulb itself. In order to further protect the silica bulb, microparticles of the same silica are added to the neon flow to absorb some of the radiation the bulb isn’t transparent to, in order to remove that part of the radiation before it hits the bulb. This neon passes around the walls of the chamber, creating a vortex in the uranium which further constrains it, and then passes out of one or both ends of the bulb. It then goes through a purification and cooling process using a cryogenic hydrogen heat exchanger and gas centrifuge, before being reused.
Now, of course there is still an intense amount of energy generated in the fuel which will be deposited in the silica, and will attempt to melt the bulb almost instantly, so the bulb must be cooled regeneratively. This is done by liquid hydrogen, which is also mostly transparent to the majority of the radiation coming off the fuel plasma, minimizing the amount of energy the coolant absorbs from anything but the silica of the bulb itself.
Finally, the now-gaseous hydrogen from both the neon and bulb cooling processes, mixed with any hydrogen needed to cool the pressure vessel, reflectors of the reactor, and other components, is mixed with microparticles of tungsten to increase the amount of UV radiation emitted by the fuel. This then passes around the bulbs in the reactor, getting heated to their final temperature, before exiting the nozzle of the NTR.
The most commonly examined version of the lightbulb uses a total of seven bulbs, with those bulbs being made up of a spiral of hydrogen coolant channels in fused silica. This was pioneered by NASA’s Lewis Research Center (LRC), and studied by United Aircraft Corp of Mass (UA). These studies were carried out between 1963 and 1972, with a very small number of follow-up studies at UA completing by 1980. This design was a 4600 MWt reactor fueled by 233U, an isp of 1870 seconds, and a thrust-to-weight ratio of 1.3.
A smaller version of this system, using a single bulb rather than seven, was proposed by the same team for probe missions and the like, but unfortunately the only papers are behind paywalls.
During the re-examination of nuclear thermal technology in the early 1990s by NASA and the DOE, the design was re-examined briefly to assess the advantages that the design could offer, but no advances in the design were made at the time.
Since then, while interest in this concept has grown, new studies have not been done, and the design remains dormant despite the extensive amount of study which has been carried out.
What’s Been Done Before: Previous Studies on the Lightbulb
The first version of the closed cycle gas core proposed by Robert Bussard in 1946. This design looked remarkably like an internal combustion firing chamber, with the UF6 gas being mechanically compressed into a critical density with a piston. Coolant would be run across the outside of the fuel element and then exit the reactor through a nozzle. While this design hasn’t been explored in any depth that I’ve been able to determine, a new version using pressure waves rather than mechanical pistons to compress gas into a critical mass has been explored in recent years (we’ll cover that in the open cycle gas core posts).
Starting in 1963, United Aircraft (UA, a subsidiary of United Technologies) worked with NASA’s Lewis Research Center (LRC) and Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory (LASL) on both the open and closed cycle gas core concepts, but the difficulties of containing the fuel in the open cycle concept caused the company to focus exclusively on the closed cycle concepts. Interestingly, according to Tom Latham of UA (who worked on the program), the design was limited in both mass and volume by the then-current volume of the proposed Space Shuttle cargo bay. Another limitation of the original concept was that no external radiators could be used for thermal management, due to the increased mass of the closed radiator system and its associated hardware.
The design that evolved was quite detailed, and also quite efficient in many ways. However, the sheer number of interdependent subsystems makes is fairly heavy, limiting its potential usefulness and increasing its complexity.
In order to get there, a large number of studies were done on a number of different subsystems and physical behaviors, and due to the extreme nature of the system design itself many experimental apparatus had to be not only built, but redesigned multiple times to get the results needed to design this reactor.
We’ll look at the testing history more in depth in a future blog post, but it’s worth looking at the types of tests that were conducted to get an idea of just how far along this design was:
Both direct current and radio frequency testing of simulated fuel plasmas were conducted, starting with the RF (induction heating) testing at the UA facility in East Hartford, CT. These studies typically used tungsten in place of uranium (a common practice, even still used today) since it’s both massive and also has somewhat similar physical properties to uranium. At the time, argon was considered for the buffer gas rather than neon, this change in composition will be something we’ll look at later in the detailed testing post.
Induction heating works by using a vibrating magnetic field to heat materials that will flip their molecular direction or vibrate, generating heat. It is a good option for nuclear testing since it is able to more evenly heat the simulated fuel, and can achieve high temperatures – it’s still used for nuclear fuel element testing not only in the Compact Fuel Element Environment Test (CFEET) test stand, which I’ve covered here https://beyondnerva.com/nuclear-test-stands-and-equipment/non-nuclear-thermal-testing/cfeet-compact-fuel-element-environmental-test/ , but also in the Nuclear Thermal Rocket Environmental Effects Simulator, which I covered here: https://beyondnerva.com/nuclear-test-stands-and-equipment/non-nuclear-thermal-testing/ntrees/ . One of the challenges of this sort of heating, though, is the induction coil, the device that creates the heating in the material. In early testing they managed to melt the copper coil they were using due to resistive heating (the same method used to make heat in a space heater or oven), and constructing a higher-powered apparatus wasn’t possible for the team.
This led to direct current heating testing to achieve higher temperatures, which uses an electrical arc through the tungsten plasma. This isn’t as good at simulating the way that heat is distributed in the plasma body, but could achieve higher temperatures. This was important for testing the stability of the vortex generated by not only the internal heating of the fuel, but also the interactions between the fuel and the neon containment system.
Another concern was determining what frequencies of radiation silicon, aluminum and neon were transparent to. By varying the temperature of the fissioning fuel mass, the frequency of radiation could, to a certain degree, be tuned to a frequency that maximized how much energy would pass through both the noble gas (then argon) and the bulb structure itself. Again, at the time (and to a certain extent later), the bulb configuration was slightly different: a layer of aluminum was added to the inner surface of the bulb to reflect more thermal radiation back into the fissioning fuel in order to increase heating, and therefore increase the temperature of the fuel. We’ll look at how this design option changed over time in future posts.
More studies and tests were done looking at the effects of neutron and gamma radiation on reactor materials. These are significant challenges in any reactor, but the materials being used in the lightbulb reactor are unusual, even by the standards of astronuclear engineering, so detailed studies of the effects of these radiation types were needed to ensure that the reactor would be able to operate throughout its required lifetime.
Perhaps one of the biggest concerns was verifying that the bulb itself would maintain both its integrity and its functionality throughout the life of the reactor. Silica is a material that is highly unusual in a nuclear reactor, and the fact that it needed to remain not only transparent but able to contain both a noble gas seeded with silica particles and hydrogen while remaining transparent to a useful range of radiation while being bombarded with neutrons (which would change the crystalline structure) and gamma rays (which would change the energy states of the individual nuclei to varying degrees) was a major focus of the program. On top of that, the walls of the individual tubes that made up the bulbs needed to be incredibly thin, and the shape of each of the individual tubes was quite unusual, so there were significant experimental manufacturing considerations to deal with. Neutron, gamma and beta (high energy electron) radiation could all have their effect on the bulb itself during the course of the reactor’s lifetime, and these effects needed to be understood and accounted for. While these tests were mostly successful, with some interesting materials properties of silica discovered along the way, when Dr. Latham discussed this project 20 years later, one of the things he mentioned was that modern materials science could possibly offer better alternatives to the silica tubing – a concept that we will touch on again in a future post.
Another challenge of the design was that it required seeding two different materials into two different gasses: the neon/argon had to be seeded with silica in order to protect the bulb, and the hydrogen propellant needed to be seeded with tungsten to make it absorb the radiation passing through the bulb as efficiently as possible while minimizing the increase in the mass of the propellant. While the hydrogen seeding process was being studied for other reactor designs – we saw this in the radiator liquid fueled NTR, and will see it again in the future in open cycle gas core and some solid core designs we haven’t covered yet – the silica seeding was a new challenge, especially because the material being seeded and the material the seeded gas would travel through was the same as the material that was seeded into the gas.
Finally, there’s the challenge of nuclear testing. Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory conducted some tests that were fission-powered, which proved the concept in theory, but these were low powered bench-top tests (which we’ll cover in depth in the future). To really test the design, it would be ideal to do a hot-fire test of an NTR. Fortunately, at the time the Nuclear Furnace test-bed was being completed (more on NERVA hot fire testing here: https://beyondnerva.com/2018/06/18/ntr-hot-fire-testing-part-i-rover-and-nerva-testing/ and the exhaust scrubbers for the Nuclear furnace here: https://beyondnerva.com/nuclear-test-stands-and-equipment/nuclear-furnace-exhaust-scrubbers/ ). This meant that it was possible to use this versatile test-bed to test a single, sub-scale lightbulb in a controlled, well-understood system. While this test was never actually conducted, much of the preparatory design work for the test was completed, another thing we’ll cover in a future post.
A Promising, Developed, Unrealized Option
The closed cycle gas core nuclear thermal rocket is one of the most perrenially fascinating concepts in astronuclear history. Not only does it offer an option for a high-temperature nuclear reactor which is able to avoid many of the challenges of solid fuel, but it offers better fission product containment than any other design besides the vapor core NTR.
It is also one of the most complex systems that has ever been proposed, with two different types of closed cycle gas systems involving heat exchangers and separation systems supporting seven different fuel chambers, a host of novel materials in unique environments, the need to tune both the temperature and emissivity of a complex fuel form to ensure the reactor’s components won’t melt down, and the constant concerns of mass and complexity hanging over the heads of the designers.
Most of these challenges were addressed in the 1960s and 1970s, with most of the still-unanswered questions needing testing that simply wasn’t possible at the time of the project’s cancellation due to shifting priorities in the space program. Modern materials science may offer better solutions to those that were available at the time as well, both in the testing and operation of this reactor.
Sadly, updating this design has not happened, but the original design remains one of the most iconic designs in astronuclear engineering.
In the next two posts, we’ll look at the testing done for the reactor in detail, followed by a detailed look at the reactor itself. Make sure to keep an eye out for them!
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McLafferty, G.H. “Investigation of Gaseous Nuclear Rocket Technology – Summary Technical Report” 1969 https://ntrs.nasa.gov/archive/nasa/casi.ntrs.nasa.gov/19700008165.pdf
Rodgers, R.J. and Latham, T.S. “Analytical Design and Performance Studies of the Nuclear Light Bulb Engine” 1972 https://ntrs.nasa.gov/archive/nasa/casi.ntrs.nasa.gov/19730003969.pdf
Latham, T.S. “Nuclear Light Bulb,” 1992 https://ntrs.nasa.gov/archive/nasa/casi.ntrs.nasa.gov/19920001892.pdf