Tuesday, June 14, 2005

New Instances

A smaller version of Kiwi, the Peewee was also built. It was fired several times at 500 MW in order to test coatings made of zirconium carbide (instead of niobium carbide) but also increased the power density of the system. An unrelated water-cooled system known as NF-1 (for Nuclear Furnace) was used for future materials testing.
While Kiwi was being run, NASA joined the effort with their NERVA program (Nuclear Engine for Rocket Vehicle Applications). Unlike the AEC work, which was intended to study the reactor design itself, NERVA was aiming to produce a real engine that could be deployed on space missions. A 75,000 lbf (334 kN) thrust baseline design was considered for some time as the upper stages for the Saturn V, in place of the J-2s that were actually flown.
The design that eventually developed, known as NRX for short, started testing in September 1964. The final engine in this series was the EX, which was the first designed to be fired in a downward position (like a "real" rocket engine) and was fired twenty-eight times in March 1968. The series all generated 1100 MW, and many of the tests concluded only when the test-stand ran out of hydrogen fuel. EX produced the baseline 75,000 lbf (334 kN) thrust that NERVA required.
A KIWI engine being destructively testedAll of these designs also shared a number of problems that were never completely cured. The engines were also quite easy to break, and on many firings the vibrations inside the reactors cracked the fuel bundles and caused the reactors to break apart. This problem was largely solved by the end of the program, and related work at Argonne National Laboratory looked promising. However, while the graphite construction was indeed able to be heated to high temperatures, it likewise eroded quite heavily due to the hydrogen. The coatings never wholly solved this problem, and significant "losses" of fuel occurred on most firings. This problem did not look like it would be solved any time soon.

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