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To Mars And Back On One Fuel Tank: University Student Beats NASA Fuel-Efficiency Record

23 September 2015, 11:07 am EDT By Dianne Depra Tech Times
Traveling to the Red Planet presents several obstacles, but a university student may have just addressed one by developing an ion space drive more fuel-efficient than NASA’s.  ( Kevin Dooley | Flickr )

A Physics doctoral candidate at the University of Sydney has developed a new kind of ion space drive that has left NASA's own in the dust in terms of fuel efficiency.

The agency has been developing ion space drives for years and its HiPEP system currently has capacity for 9,600 (+/- 200) seconds of specific impulse. Patrick Neumann's work, however, the Neumann Drive, is capable of up to 14, 690 (+/- 2,000) seconds. Given this figure, even conservative results on the Neumann Drive would result in a performance well above NASA's record, meaning that it is using up fuel more efficiently, which will allow for longer use. Additionally, Neumann's ion space drive can run on different kinds of metals, unlike the HiPEP that can only utilize xenon gas. The Neumann Drive was running on magnesium when it beat NASA's fuel-efficiency record.

To function, the ion space drive developed by Neumann relies on a reaction produced by metal and electricity, where electric arcs hit the fuel source (magnesium, in this case), leading ions to spray. The resulting spray is then gathered by a magnetic thrust, producing thrust in short and light bursts. Current propulsion devices running on chemicals typically operate by producing short, high-powered bursts they can coast on. Because the Neumann Drive uses more sustained bursts, it preserves the fuel source better, making it ideal for long-term missions.

The Neumann Drive has the potential to be packhorse for space travel, transporting cargo over long distances, but it also offers the added benefit of cleaning up space debris by recycling old satellites as fresh fuel. This ion space drive runs on metals, remember? And there are a lot of metal pieces floating around in space. If Neumann's drive can utilize scrap metal in space, it could not just dramatically reduce the price of space transport but enable safer travels in space as it will be reducing debris floating around.

If a satellite uses the Neumann Drive, it will also stay in orbit longer, allowing more data to be gathered and letting its owner make the most out of investing in the facility.

Neumann was assisted by Marcela Bilek and David McKenzie. He has submitted a patent for the Neumann Drive under Neumann Space, his new company, and is in the process of acquiring funding for his research's next stage. His work will be presented at the 15th Australian Space Research Conference.

Photo: Kevin Dooley | Flickr

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