Dismiss Notice
Join Physics Forums Today!
The friendliest, high quality science and math community on the planet! Everyone who loves science is here!

First Nuclear-Powered Airliner?

  1. Jul 16, 2016 #1

    Rio Larsen

    User Avatar
    Gold Member

    The BBC has reported on a supposed nuclear-powered airliner that would fly three times the speed of sound.


    From the article:
    The first sentence of this article already makes me skeptical. It runs on "nuclear fusion." Needless to say, this sounds insane already from the start. How would this even be realistically achieved for an airliner? Also, why would you ever want to fly on an aircraft that could potentially go three times the speed of sound?

    A scientist (Dr. Phil Mason) has debunked this with more info; however, there is strong language for those sensitive to it.

    What are your thoughts on this article?
  2. jcsd
  3. Jul 16, 2016 #2

    Vanadium 50

    User Avatar
    Staff Emeritus
    Science Advisor
    Education Advisor
    2017 Award

    While I think nuclear aviation is a bad idea, I also think you have misrepresented it. You say

    when in fact the first sentence is "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."

    Also, it's not like the proponents don't know that fusion is not realistic today, as the article says "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."

    One can be critical of the article without misrepresenting it.
  4. Jul 16, 2016 #3

    Rio Larsen

    User Avatar
    Gold Member

    I was thinking that it was. Is it more appropriate to call it a subtitle rather than a first sentence?
  5. Jul 16, 2016 #4
    Wait, Thunderf00t still does skepticism? I thought he was consumed by the GamerGate vortex and spent all his time whining about Anita Sarkeesian and the feminist conspiracy to take over the world one lukewarm artistic critique at a time.
  6. Jul 16, 2016 #5


    User Avatar

    Staff: Mentor

    Closed for Moderation. There's a surprise...
  7. Jul 18, 2016 #6


    User Avatar

    Staff: Mentor

    Thread re-opened.
  8. Jul 20, 2016 #7
    Russia build nuclear Bomers long ago.
    it was Very messy! Myasishchev M-50 & 52
    Last edited: Jul 20, 2016
  9. Jul 20, 2016 #8


    User Avatar
    Staff Emeritus
    Science Advisor

    According to military and aviation historian George Kerevan (interviewed at 7:49), there never was a Russian nuclear powered aircraft. The M-50 (Bounder) was conventionally powered.

    I worked with a manager who had spent time on the ANP.

    One could possibly build a small, light, compact reactor knowing what we know today. But there is still the matter of what happens in a crash, which is fairly unattractive.
  10. Jul 21, 2016 #9
    I was about to agree with you, but then I began to wonder what would happen if a nuclear powered plane crashed. I'm not sure it would be so terrible. (In the nuclear sense.) Let's talk about it.

    How much power does an aircraft need?
    For 787: 6 kg/km * 900 km/hr / 3600 s/hr * 43 MJ/kg ≈ 65 MW

    Which fissile material would it use? I understand that nuclear materials have terrific energy density. How is their power density?
    For U233: 82 TJ/kg / (160000 years to seconds * 2) ≈ 8 W/kg
    By simple division, I'd need about 8,000,000 kg of U233.
    That's not happening in the air. But that's also under natural decay.
    What about active bombardment? I don't know how to calculate that.

    What sort of reactor would it be? I can't imagine using a LWR on a plane.

    Also, a crash doesn't necessarily mean loss of containment.

    If it is a question of engineering, then I'm sure there's a solution.
    If politics, well...
    Last edited: Jul 21, 2016
  11. Jul 21, 2016 #10


    User Avatar

    How much power does an aircraft need?

    A rough estimate can be made as follows: for unaccelerated level flight at best L/D ratio, for a mass M and airspeed V, we may imagine that plane with engines off and gliding, under 'gravitational power'. That power will be the weight of the plane times the vertical component of the airspeed, thus (D/L) × V × M × g. The same power will be necessary for level, unaccelerated flight. Of course, for climbing and maneuvering it would be prudent to have some extra power. Besides, the propeller hasn't a 100% efficiency. To be on the safe side, let's assume that we need three times that minimum power.

    Let's assume L/D = 15, V = 200 m/s M = 10000 kg. We arrive at 1300 kW for the bare minimum. A realistic power would be 1300 x 3 = 3900 kW

    Sounds doable...
  12. Jul 21, 2016 #11
    There's an interesting documentary on Youtube about this with Physicist Herbert York...I love to go back and watch it sometimes. I'm all for nuclear aviation. Fusion airplanes are pretty much science fiction right now, though. It's totally possible with fission IMO.

    I believe somewhere in the documentary they say that the American plane was the Convair NB-36. It carried an operating reactor on board over 20-30 flights, but was never powered by it. The Russian plane was powered by its reactor, but the Russians did not shield their pilots adequately, and they died 3 years later.
Share this great discussion with others via Reddit, Google+, Twitter, or Facebook

Have something to add?
Draft saved Draft deleted