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Nuclear Rocket Propellant/Fuel Choices

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Put here since this forum needs more love.


One of the major benefits of nuclear rocket engines such as NERVA is they are capable of using almost any working fluid as propellant (provided they are appropriately designed). As the source of energy in a nuclear rocket comes from fission, rather than combustion, an oxidizer is not needed. The propellant can be chosen based on other properties. Hydrogen is a common choice, as the light molecular mass of H2 gives a good exhaust velocity and specific impulse. Methane and other hydrocarbons are also considered; they give good thrust (generally better with heavier hydrocarbons), and decent specific impulse (methane is best). Additionally, hydrocarbons are found on numerous bodies in the solar system, including in liquid form on Titan. Robert Zubrin writes about in-situ resource utilization to obtain propellant for nuclear rockets here and here.


One of the biggest drawbacks of using hydrogen as fuel for a nuclear rocket is its low density. Even if liquid hydrogen is used (requiring cryogenic storage), the fuel tank mass (and therefore structural mass) will be much larger than if another fuel was used. Compounds of hydrogen and other light elements could give good performance, but have better storage density and not require cryogenic storage.


Ammonia, methane, and water have already been examined. Borane (BH3) is unstable, and diborane (B2H6) has a high molar mass (yielding lower isp unless it dissociates), and still requires cryogenic temperatures to keep liquid; it boils at 181K.


Two interesting options would be the lightest metal hydrides; lithium hydride and beryllium dihydride. Both of these compounds are solid at room temperature; and would have decent volumetric efficiency (though they are both less dense than water in solid form). Additionally, their molar masses are very light; lithium hydride has a molar mass of roughly 8, and beryllium dihydride is roughly 11. This is superior to ammonia, methane, or water. The only better options are hydrogen, or helium (good luck keeping liquid helium cool for years on a spacecraft). Even better, these compounds actually decompose when heated to their melting points, yielding hydrogen (and metal atoms). As the specific impulse is dependent on the average molar mass of the exhaust products, this means your efficiency will be almost as good as hydrogen (with much better volumetric efficiency). I suspect that storing your propellant in solid form could also simplify your fuel tank construction.


However, there are some drawbacks. LiH and BeH2 both require heating to decompose. There are several options for a source of heat, but it seems to me the easiest would be heating elements strategically placed throughout the fuel mass. Another major problem would be deposition of lithium or beryllium metal in the reactor compartment. I am uncertain whether lithium or beryllium in elemental form would react with zirconium carbide cladding in NERVA; I suspect there is little research on this topic. Even if the metals are nonreactive in gaseous form, the whole of the reactor compartment would have to be kept above the melting point of lithium (454K) or beryllium (1560K). Additionally, the aft end of the reactor compartment would have to be hot enough to boil lithium (1615K) or beryllium (3243K) to avoid two-phase losses in the exhaust. 3243K is close to the maximum of performance possible today (I believe my nuclear propulsion professor said that 3500K was the "holy grail" of solid core NTR design). Beryllium is highly toxic when inhaled, though this could be avoided by only using the rockets in space (chemical rockets are better optimized for ground launch). Lithium is less toxic, but computer simulations have apparently shown that unless almost all lithium-6 is removed from the hydride, it functions as a neutron poison. To my knowledge, beryllium hydride is not a neutron poison.


Beryllium hydride has at least been mentioned as a fuel for normal rockets; https://arxiv.org/ftp/arxiv/papers/1105/1105.0998.pdf, but I have yet to find any mention of its use as a nuclear rocket propellant. I would be quite curious to know if more research on this topic exists. On the surface, though, beryllium hydride looks like a good propellant, provided its issues can be overcome.





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Gah, you're right.


Although we could talk about nuclear rocket fuel choices. The various isotopes of Americium have lower critical masses than U-235, and Americium melts about 40K higher than pure uranium. Although, I suspect the melting point of Americium Oxide might be a bit lower than Uranium Oxide (assuming the same oxidation state), since Americium's outer valence electrons are presumably more weakly held than uranium's. I dunno, though (also, I wonder if Americium Carbide is viable?).


In any case, I think melting point of fuel is the most important performance factor for an NTR. If you run it hotter, you get more performance out of your propellant.

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It seems to me that a lot of engineering concerns go away if you have a liquid fuel that's segregated from the propellant by some sort of container.  Something like the proposed Moltex reactor.


Then you're not worried about the propellant reacting with the fuel or anything annoying like that, and the fuel can be run up to liquid phase temperatures safely.


I'm thinking sort of halfway to a lightbulb.

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Looked into it a bit, beryllium is a neutron reflector and also a pretty decent moderator due to its low mass. It's absorption cross section is also pretty low. Really, beryllium seems like a nice material for a lot of applications, aside from its horrible toxicity.


Re: Liquid core rockets - NASA's looked at it; https://ntrs.nasa.gov/search.jsp?R=19910012832

Their design is beryllium moderated, to boot.


Atomic Rockets also has a blurb on liquid cores. One of the cool things about them is that they get hot enough to dissociate H2, which gets you about a 40% bump in your specific impulse. Still, I think the lightbulb is the best option (aside from short term use of solid cores).

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More beryllium fun facts; for fast neutrons (which an NTR is probably using), beryllium-9 is actually a neutron multiplier. Upon absorbing a neutron, it decays (via short-lived Be-8) to two alpha particles and two neutrons. Those two alpha particles are helium nuclei, and helium is nontoxic and light.

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