NASA-funded researchers at the University of Washington will test a unique approach to nuclear fusion this summer, in the hopes that the technology will replace rocket fuel and power spacecraft that are faster and less expensive to operate. The research team has already confirmed that discrete sections of their method work in isolation, and they're now working toward testing the complete process. Developments in nuclear fusion have been a hot topic in research for decades, but practical ways to harness it remain an ongoing pursuit of researchers around the world.

A grain of the plasma is equivalent to a gallon of rocket fuel

The University of Washington's research team uses a type of plasma encapsulated in a magnetic field. Already, they've shown that this combination, when exposed to high pressure, results in nuclear fusion. The University of Washington reports that an amount of this material the size of a grain of sand can produce the same quantity of energy as one gallon of rocket fuel. The team believes that this could allow for a 30-day round trip to Mars due to the increased power and decreased weight gained by the fuel swap, whereas current technology would put a trip's minimum length at closer to four years.

Though the team's work on this advancement has yet to be peer-reviewed — let alone fully tested — it was one of 15 selected out of a group of 700 vying for funding last year in NASA's Innovative Advanced Concepts Program. The technology likely won't be ready in time for the Inspiration Mars Foundation's aggressive plan for a manned mission to the red planet in 2018, but it could make future long-distance spaceflight considerably easier.