Maybe it’s because nanoFET sounds like Boba Fett, but the name just screams “science fiction” to me. The device is still in very early stages of development, but it could theoretically propel spaceships into the vicinity of light speed. And getting close to light speed means going to other solar systems, and THAT means a science fiction-like reality. So work with me here.
If a nanoparticle field emission thruster (the aforementioned NanoFET) has been a subject of investigation for University of Michigan electrical engineer Brian Gilchrist for several years now. Gilchrist, joined by a team of scientists, has published and presented papers (pdf) at conferences (pdf) around the country, trying to show the theory of how electronically charged nanotubes could enable a spaceship to achieve astonishing speeds.
As Gilchrist envisions it, a nanoFET engine would be installed as a series of flat plates around our spaceship—let’s say the Millennium Falcon. So instead of the white glare of rockets pointed off the back of the Falcon as it flees TIE fighters, there would be a series of flat panels that resemble the silicon wafers that go into microchips (the MEMS production process would be very similar). Each panel would be covered in round discs, each 10 centimeters in diameter, which in turn would be comprised of thousands of emitters, each roughly 100 micrometers in diameter.
Each emitter works a bit like an tiny particle accelerator: The anode of the emitter charges the nanoparticles, which are then accelerated and then shot out a tube by a strong magnetic field generated by a stack of microchip-like components. “In that a particle accelerator uses an electrical field to propel charged particles to high speeds — that’s exactly what we’re doing,” Gilchrist told MSNBC. Thanks to Newton’s third law, as the ship ejects particles in one direction, the ship moves in the opposite direction. Eject long, thin nanotubes for high-efficiency, slow acceleration; use short, thick nanotubes for better acceleration at greater cost of energy. The NanoFet could potentially eject nearly any type of nanoparticle that would take a charge.
The nanoFET is also remarkable flexible and scalable. A plate of nearly any size could be placed more or less anywhere on the object to be propelled, and each plate could be nearly any size. So instead of the Millennium Falcon merely being the fastest hunk of junk in the galaxy, it could also be astonishingly maneuverable, with smaller plates on different parts of the hull to establish tight turns and sudden changes in direction.
The only real downside is that nanoFETs are not imagined to provide the kind of high acceleration needed to break Earth’s gravity and escape orbit. But once in space, a ship equipped with nanoFET would have an extremely thin and lightweight engine with a commensurately compact fuel source. The nanoFET would be able achieve nearly constant acceleration. Do that for long enough, and speeds of 90 percent of light speed might become possible. Just think, if the Americans in Armageddon had a nanoFET powered space ship available to get out and intercept that asteroid, that whole Affleck-Armageddon fiasco could have been avoided. And wouldn’t we all want that?