MANHASSET, N.Y. -- A team of researchers has demonstrated the first use of a heat pipe to cool a small nuclear reactor and power a Stirling engine -- a concept for a reliable nuclear reactor that could be used on space flights.
The Demonstration Using Flattop Fissions (DUFF) experiment produced 24 watts of electricity, researchers at Los Alamos National Laboratory reported.
Heat pipe technology invented at Los Alamos in 1963 consists of a sealed tube with an internal fluid that can efficiently transfer heat produced by a reactor using no moving parts. A Stirling closed-loop engine converts heat energy into electrical power using a pressurized gas to move a piston.
The researchers said using the two devices in tandem allowed for creation of a reliable electric power supply that can be adapted for space applications.
They configured the demonstration on an existing experiment, known as Flattop to allow for a water-based heat pipe to extract heat from uranium. DUFF is the first demonstration of a space nuclear reactor system to produce electricity in the U.S. since 1965. The researchers said the experiment confirms basic nuclear reactor physics and heat transfer for a simple space power system.
Current space missions typically use power supplies that generate about the same amount of electricity as two household light bulbs. The availability of more power could potentially boost the speed with which mission data is transmitted back to Earth, or increase the number of spacecraft instruments that could be operated at the same time.
"Perhaps one of the more important aspects of this experiment is that it was taken from concept to completion in six months for less than a million dollars," said Los Alamos engineer David Dixon.
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A Los Alamos National Laboratory researcher makes final adjustments on a demonstration of a space nuclear reactor system for producing electricity.