Space & Innovation

Fusion Reactor Powers Futuristic Airliner

The Flash Falcon concept aircraft envisions a future where small fusion reactors power advanced and incredibly powerful electric-combustion engines.

<p>Oscar Viñals<span></span></p>

If today's aviation advances aren't moving fast enough for you - tray table technology hasn't budged in decades - you'll want to check out the futuristic visions of Spanish industrial designer Oscar Viñals.

The Flash Falcon is a future concept jetliner powered by portable fusion reactors. That technology isn't here yet, of course, but Viñals kind of specializes in "what if?" scenarios.

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After all, this is the man who brought us the Sky Whale passenger airliner and the enormous GIGAbay cargo plane.

Viñals' latest creation is currently featured on the design-forward website Tuvie, which is a fun place to browse any day of the week, really. In additions to a collection of rather gorgeous images, Viñals provides some technical details on his space-age concept aircraft.

The Flash Falcon design envisions a future where small fusion reactors can power advanced and incredibly powerful electric-combustion (EC) engines. Thrust is generated by superconductive fans along with special combustion chambers.

The Flash Falcon's engines would be flexible and powerful enough to enable vertical take-off and landing. At cruising altitudes, the aircraft could easily attain supersonic speeds up to Mach 3. That will get you from New York to Paris in about three hours.

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In its current design iteration, the Flash Falcon could carry upwards of 250 passengers on two roomy decks. The wings are designed to be flexible as well, and can change their angle of inclination in relation to the central fuselage.

Up in the cockpit, holographic windows give the pilots expanded views and control options. Viñals has even included a theoretical "Sound Boom Eraser System" for muffling the noise generated when the aircraft penetrates the sound barrier.

Such a polite young man. Check out the project page for more details and blueprints.

Meanwhile, over on the cargo plane tarmac, the GIGAbay concept envisions a ginormous aircraft powered by four hybrid fuel/electric engines, with supplemental energy provided by hydrogen fuel cells, wind generators and solar panels. The cargo area of the GIGAbay design is so large it could carry other jumbo aircraft, or even mobile field hospitals.

The N3-X concept aircraft, from Boeing and NASA, is based on a blended wing body (BWB) design intended to improve aerodynamics, fuel efficiency and noise emissions. The ultra-wide fuselage would greatly expand carrying capacity for commercial flights.

Developed by a research team from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the D8 "Double Bubble" aircraft would be used for domestic flights and is designed to fly at Mach 0.74 carrying 180 passengers in a coach cabin roomier than that of a Boeing 737-800. The D8 could enter service as soon as 2030, NASA says.

From Lockheed Martin, this concept design for a future supersonic aircraft is focused on reducing emissions and creating a quieter boom. A quieter craft would allow supersonic flights over land, where they are currently prohibited.

Technology moves faster every day. But commercial air travel hasn't changed as quickly as some industries in recent years. Experts project big changes in the next few decades, though, especially as aviation companies deploy significant innovations in design, material sciences and alternative energy sources. Here we take a look at some of changes on the horizon for commercial, cargo and experimental aircraft.

Powered by two superconducting electric motors, the concept plane known as the VoltAir (get it?) is a proposed all-electric airliner out of Europe. The engines would draw from next-generation lithium ion batteries -- really big ones -- that would be simply swapped out between flights.

Some cutting-edge technologies on the horizon are actually modifications of existing designs that have been around for more than a century. To wit, the illustration above imagines the closed-wing "PrandtlPlane" design applied to commercial passenger aircraft. Closed-wing planes have smaller wingspans than traditional aircraft, relative to fuselage size, allowing larger planes to operate out of smaller airports.

Another sort of hybrid, the E-Thrust design -- from Rolls-Royce and several European partners -- uses a combination of gas-turbine engines and battery-powered fans. The jet engines would only kick in when needed, similar to gas/electric hybrid cars. The fans would also be used, on descent, as built-in windmills to recharge the onboard batteries.

And from the ultralight division, we have the Solar Impulse 2, the latest iteration of the world's most advanced solar-powered, single-seat aircraft. The Swiss team behind the project plans to circumnavigate the planet in 2015, using a team of pilots flying in shifts over the course of about five months.

Finally, from the designer who brought us the GIGAbay cargo plane, the mighty Sky Whale also subscribes to the concept that bigger equals better -- and greener. The Sky Whale is a largely theoretical vision for a passenger plane that could seat 755 passengers on three floors, using a combination of alternative power sources. The upshot? More passengers per flight means fewer flights, and fewer emissions.