Joanna Connolly and Peter Walsh on the latest from the School of Physics.
University of Sydney doctoral candidate in Physics, Paddy Neumann, has developed a new kind of ion space drive that has allegedly smashed the current record for fuel efficiency held by NASA.
The current record, held by NASA’s HiPEP system, allows 9600 (+/- 200) seconds of specific impulse. However, results recorded by the Neumann Drive have been as high as 14,690 (+/- 2000), with even conservative results performing well above NASA’s best. That suggests the drive is using fuel far more efficiently, allowing for it to operate for longer. Furthermore NASA’s HiPEP runs on Xenon gas, while the Neumann Drive can be powered on a number of different metals, the most efficient tested so far being magnesium.
The drive works through a reaction between electricity and metal, where electric arcs strike the chosen fuel (in this case, magnesium) and cause ions to spray, which are then focused by a magnetic nozzle to produce thrust. Unlike current industry standard chemical propulsion devices, which operate through short, high-powered bursts of thrust and then coasting, Neumann’s drive runs on a continuous rhythm of short and light bursts, preserving the fuel source but requiring long-term missions.
The drive—which allegedly outperforms NASA’s HiPEP in fuel efficiency, but not acceleration—could potentially function as the packhorse of space travel, allowing for the transportation of cargo over long distances. Most interestingly, as it runs on metals commonly found in space junk, it could potentially be fuelled by recycling exhausted satellites, repurposing them into fresh fuel. Given the current cost of transporting fuel into space (exponential), and the ubiquity of space junk, the Neumann drive has huge commercial potential. It could vastly reduce the cost of space transportation, keep satellites in orbit for longer periods of time, and enable space travel of much greater distances, with Neumann suggesting the possibly of “Mars and back on a tank of fuel”.
Despite this, Neumann’s attempts to offer his invention as intellectual property to the university were passed on by CDIP (Commercial Development and Industry Partnerships), the university’s wing for commercialising research work done at the University of Sydney. As a result, intellectual property over the Neumann Drive returned to Neumann and Professors David McKenzie and Marcela Bilek, who assisted in his work. Neumann subsequently lodged a patent for the device under the purview of a new company, Neumann Space, and is currently in the process of securing funding for the next stage of research and development. Honi understands that Neumann’s attempts to contact the Vice Chancellor were not responded to.
On Tuesday, Neumann lodged a patent for the invention, opening up the potential to commercialise the drive down the track. He intends to continue endurance testing his device, to examine its performance under the conditions likely to be met in space. He will be presenting his findings at the 15th Australian Space Research Conference, on September 30th at the Australian Defence Force Academy.