Atomic Powered Global Hawk Jet Revving For Take-Off?

SciScoop covered this story over a year ago, but it’s worth taking a look at again now because of new May 2004 cover stories in Popular Mechanics and Physics Today.  Apparently there are classified efforts underway to modify an existing Global Hawk unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) with a quantum nucleonic reactor (QNR) to power its jet engine, allowing virtually unlimited time aloft.  

QNRs are a totally new nuclear technology developed in the 1990s that use neither fission or fusion of atoms.  Instead, if you bombard the QNR fuel with X-rays from a standard hospital-type X-ray machine, the fuel gives off a stream of gamma rays that is 50 times more powerful and can directly heat a stream of air to push the aircraft forward.  Thus you’re leveraging your available input power by a factor of fifty via a gizmo that produces no radioactive exhaust and can be throttled by controlling the X-ray generator.  Turn off the X-rays, you turn off the QNR.  Pretty neat if it works.  Not everybody believes it has, does or will. Regardless, Los Alamos and Sandia nuclear engineers in New Mexico have been instructed to discourage public discussion of QNRs even as the Department of Defense has put the machine on its Militarily Critical Technologies List to put it on the fast track for future funding.

The QNR fuel of choice is hafnium-178 (actually its metastable nuclear isomer, currently obtained by bombarding sub-hafnium elements with protons, neutrons and alpha particles), which has a half-life of only 30 years or so and isn’t particularly dangerous – OK, OK, compared to plutonium in a conventional fission nuclear reactor.  No need to worry about a crash of a QNR Global Hawk; the crash site would clean itself up of any spilled radioactive material in a century or so! With a golfball-sized chunk of Hf-178m estimated as having the energy of ten kilotons of conventional explosives (half a Hiroshima), this technology is also a potential contender for a breakthrough Moon/Mars propulsion system.  Or a superbomb.  Or not.

10 thoughts on “Atomic Powered Global Hawk Jet Revving For Take-Off?”

  1. This is a pretty interesting story. I just wanted to point people to the metroactive link Ricky provides. It’s an excellent article, don’t skip it, read it.

  2. They need to prove hafnium-178 can power a light bulb (or its own x-ray machine) before they start drawing up plans for hafnium-powered flight. I’m also puzzled how a guy who thinks the energy from hafnium can’t be extracted still thinks it will trigger an arms race. Dud bombs are not very scary.

  3. I don’t think that Herrmannsfeldt knows for sure or not if it will work. In fact it doesn’t seem he really cares too much (given the comments about his age). What he has noted is that it seems silly to embark on a project without settling the existing contentions of viability. It is clear though that he believes that if the US embark seriously on this project that the perception by other powers will be that the US is updating their WMD. That is the crux, these other powers will have to update as well. I agree with him. It’s irrelevant what the outcome will be, it’s only the purpose of the program that matters, with regard to an escalation of production of large scale weapons.

  4. BTW, I added a few more sentences to the article with an interesting link to the MCTL and some more info on hafnium-178.

  5. .
    …that the government has gone off half-cocked chasing something. I’m thinking in particular the huge numbers of proposed but never gotten past the prototype stage of aircraft. They’ve been doing that since before WWII (other things include air cars, a chicken in every pot, mass transit, free medical care for everyone, airport security, etc.).

    The thing about half-life is that if you start out with X, in one half-life you have X/2 left, after another half-life it’s X/4, and so on. Start out with a kilo of hafnium and in 300 years there will still be a gram left.

    And a crash? I just don’t think the site of a QNR UAV crash will be remembered in 300 years, not to mention 30. That’s one bad thing about governments, owning up to things…

    But if it works, great. I wouldn’t want to caught in the exhaust of one of those QNR UAVs, but that’s another concern.


  6. I bet he has his doubts about the viability, but you’re right in that he’s more concerned with the way the hawks have jumped on the idea.

    But imagine for a moment that the U.S. military really does know that hafnium is half-baked. They manufacture leaks of false information about the construction of a $100,000,000 facility for hafnium production. Enemies of the U.S. then waste millions of dollars worth of their own currency producing and experimenting with hafnium. It’s a race of some sort, but if hafnium doesn’t work then it’s not an arms race per se. It might spur these countries to investigate new weapon technologies other than hafnium, but just how many radical new weapons technologies are out there? Would they continue research on these other technologies once they learned American hafnium ‘weapons’ were just a bluff?

    It might work this way even if the U.S. military is wrongly convinced that it will work. Consider it the modern Star Wars.

    There is one flaw (that I can think of), which you may be alluding to. If these other countries can’t or won’t pursue hafnium or some other new weapon technology, they may instead compensate by increasing the size of their current nuclear weapon stockpiles. So it might trigger an arms race or just a lot of failed experiments. It’s not something we should risk.

  7. This was the immediate thought that came to my mind about what Herrmannsfeldt thought. That he didn’t think others would necessarily pursue hafnium, but would just, in his words, update their weapons. A disinformation campaign could be used though to justify increased spending or even further illegal invasions. But that is a tin hat conspiracy theorist idea.

  8. they’ll ‘sterilize’ the crash sight with x-rays. Might melt the soil, but what the heck…

  9. Hafnium itself isnt dangerous in its stable state. The half life is 30 years, but the radiation is minimal. I forget the URL, but do a quick google search for hafnium and youll find a thing on the health effects. If you get it in your eyes, it makes them a bit itchy, but other than that its totally benign.

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