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"Cyberspace is a metaphor that allows us to grasp this place where since about the time of the second world war we've increasingly done so many of the things that we think of as civilization."
- William Gibson

Bussard Ramjet  
  Propulsion method that scoops hydrogen atoms from space via electromagnetic fields.  

Niven makes good use of this real-life invention in the novel. It is a propulsion method that scoops hydrogen atoms from space via electromagnetic fields, then directs them into a fusion chamber and expels them out the back for thrust.

The emissions of a ramscoop tend to be high-energy hydrogen and helium, lithium radicals, borates, and lithium hydride, producing a purplish flame.

The magnetic field of a Ramscoop is considered to be lethal to living organisms.

The starships were Bussard ramjets. They caught interstellar hydrogen in immaterial nets of electromagnetic force, compressed and guided it into a ring of pinched force fields, and there burned it in fusion fire. Potenially there was no limit at all on the speed of a Bussard ramjet. The ships were enormously powerful, enormously complex, enormously expensive.
From A World Out of Time, by Larry Niven.
Published by Random House in 1976
Additional resources -

The Bussard ramjet design was originally proposed in 1960 by physicist Robert W. Bussard. Among the problems with the original design are

  • the interstellar medium in our neck of the woods is more rarefied than thought in the 1960's (meaning less fuel is available) and
  • interstellar hydrogen is mostly ordinary hydrogen-1 (rather than the easy-to-fuse deuterium and tritium isotopes) and so makes for a poorer fusion fuel.
Be sure to take a look at the entry for ram field, an extension on this idea from Niven's earlier novel Protector.

For a look at a propulsion system using a more tenuous fuel source, see light sail, from Sail 25, by Jack Vance.

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Additional resources:
  More Ideas and Technology from A World Out of Time
  More Ideas and Technology by Larry Niven
  Tech news articles related to A World Out of Time
  Tech news articles related to works by Larry Niven

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