Photo of the HTRE-3 Nuclear Powered Jet Engines.
According to Ian Poll, professor of Aerospace Engineering at Cranfield University, "Nuclear-powered airplanes are the answer beyond 2050," he said, concluding, "If we want to continue to enjoy the benefits of air travel without hindrance from environmental concerns, we need to explore nuclear power. If aviation remains wedded to fossil fuels, it will run into serious trouble."Ian Poll
Ian Poll is Professor of Aerospace Engineering at Cranfield University and the Technical and Business Development Director of Cranfield Aerospace, a wholly owned subsidiary of Cranfield University.
More than 50 years ago, aerospace engineers spent over $1 billion--in 1950s money--designing atomic-powered airplanes in the hope that such superfast jets could remain aloft for 15,000 miles at a time. Ultimately, they retrofitted the Convair B-36, a hybrid prop/jet-engine bomber weighing more than 400,000 pounds and with a wingspan of 230 feet, to house an air-cooled reactor in the aft bomb bay. Up front, the plane was outfitted with a 12-ton lead-and-rubber-shielded crew compartment. The atomic version of Convair's plane, called "Peacemaker," made 47 test flights over Texas and New Mexico between July 1955 and March 1957.
Convair NB-36H Peacemaker experimental aircraft and a Boeing B-50 Superfortress chase plane during research and development taking place at the Convair plant at Forth Worth, Tex. The NB-36H was modified to carry a three-megawatt, air-cooled nuclear reactor in its bomb bay.
Great Video about the race for Nuclear Powered Aircraft
The basic idea behind a jet engine is to burn fuel to heat up air and greatly increase its volume. As the air expands, it shoots out the exhaust-end of the engine to create momentum flux a.k.a. thrust.
In one design for a nuclear aircraft, a nuclear reactor creates the heat, and a ramjet-style engine brings in the air to be heated. Enriched uranium or plutonium produce extreme heat and does so very efficiently in terms of weight per BTU generated. An airplane powered this way could in theory fly for months without refueling or having to carry massive amounts of Jet-A around in it's wings.
In 1955, the US Aircraft Reactor Experiment (ARE) program produced the successful X-39 engine, two modified General Electric J47s with heat supplied by the Heat Transfer Reactor Experiment-1 (HTRE-1). The first full power test of the HTRE-1 system on nuclear power took place in January 1956. A total of 5004 megawatt-hours of operation was completed during the test program. The HTRE-1 was replaced by the HTRE-2 and eventually the HTRE-3 unit powering the two J47s. The HTRE-3 used "a flight-type shield system" and would probably have gone on to power the X-6 had that program been pursued.
However, if you think the US stopped working on this technology back in the 50's, you'd be hugely mistaken as it was too successful. The project simply went black and efforts were focused on high altitude tactical reconnaissance where the ability to stay aloft for days or even weeks was enormously attractive in the 80's cold war.
Many aircraft technology enthusiast claim that a craft called the TR-3B was built with technology available in the mid- 1980s. The triangular shaped nuclear powered aircraft was developed under the Aurora Program with SDI and black project funding. You be the judge ;-)
What do ya think?