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"in 1974 I experienced an invasion of my mind by a transcendentally rational mind, as if I had been insane all my life and suddenly I had become sane."
- Philip K. Dick

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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