Honors Gallery

Princeton Field Reversed Configuration Fusion Reactor for Space Rocket Propulsion

Award: Industry/Non-federal Government/University

Year: 2018

Award Type: National

Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL)

Princeton Field Reversed Configuration (PFRC) is a novel plasma heating method that can lead to a very small fusion reactor. With one end open to space, PFRC becomes the Direct Fusion Drive (DFD), a fusion-powered rocket engine that could enable new robotic and human missions. The PFRC magnetic device would create a cigar-shaped plasma—the superhot, electrically charged gas that fuels fusion reactions.

The device uses an innovative method to stream cool ions around the plasma fusion region to remove the fusion ash and efficiently produce thrust and electricity simultaneously. Propulsion would come from this stream of ions, which are heated by the energetic fusion exhaust as they travel along the engine and then blast into space through a magnetic nozzle.

Princeton Satellite Systems (PSS) licensed the PFRC patents from Princeton University, the contractor for Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL), for space propulsion applications. Since the execution of the license agreement, additional patents have issued and additional funding for research at PPPL was obtained via grants from NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program. In addition, the licensee was selected in mid-2017 for two NASA Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) awards on NASA’s new topic, Advanced Nuclear Propulsion, in partnership with Princeton University.

Space applications for DFD include high power Earth satellites, deep space propulsion, and electric power for robotic and human bases throughout the solar system, including the moon and Mars.

PSS is already looking far beyond Mars, as DFD would enable ambitious robotic solar system missions at far less cost than current technology allows. 

There are many important terrestrial applications for DFD as well, including portable power for emergencies, remote power for villages and towns that are not on the grid, and forward and mobile power for the military. In addition, PFRCs could be used in a modular fashion for ordinary power stations that can be built incrementally without the huge capital investments needed for current technology including cogeneration plants. A full-size plant would fit on a tractor trailer easily transportable by road, rail or plane. It could provide power to remote villages that currently rely on diesel power with fuel delivered by light planes. It could also provide forward power for military forces to power the planned all-electric Army Brigade Combat Team or Navy surface and underwater combatants.

Contact: Laurie Bagley, (609) 243-2425, [email protected]