Ion space drive is said to break fuel efficiency record

Ion space drive is said to break fuel efficiency record
Credit: Neumann Space

What's that? A space drive that reportedly wipes out NASA's fuel efficiency record? The news comes from Australia, from Neumann Space.

"We've built a brand new kind of ion engine (that's a kind of rocket), that has just broken the world record for specific impulse previously held by NASA's HIPEP thruster."

Talking about news from the School of Physics, the University of Sydney student newspaper Honi Soit on September 17 ran the story with the headline, "University of Sydney Student Smashes NASA Record For Fuel Efficiency; "Mars and Back on a Tank of Fuel."

Ion drives are propulsion systems that work by throwing particles backwards really fast in order to propel a spacecraft forward, said Fiona MacDonald in ScienceAlert.

A University of Sydney doctoral candidate in Physics, Patrick (Paddy) Neumann, developed the ion space drive which was reported to have smashed the current record for held by NASA. Professors David McKenzie and Marcela Bilek assisted in his work, said Honi Soit.

Neumann acknowledged his Masters and PhD supervisors, Bilek and McKenzie, in Business Insider, as two who "helped him to narrow his focus and interpret any funky results that cropped up."

Honi Soit: "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."

How does it actually work? According to Neumann Space, "The Neumann Drive uses solid fuel and electricity to produce thrust. It is a "wire-triggered pulsed cathodic arc system" and works something similar to an arc welder.

The Honi Soit article said it works through a reaction between electricity and metal. 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."

Other fuels that it can use: Neumann and team have tried various materials including vanadium, magnesium, titanium and bismuth.

How does his kind of ion space drive contrast with what is considered industry standard chemical propulsion devices? The latter operate through short, high-powered bursts of thrust and then coasting. In contrast, said Honi Soit, Neumann's drive "runs on a continuous rhythm of short and light bursts, preserving the fuel source but requiring long-term missions."

Business Insider also made the distinctions: "Whereas NASA's model runs on , Neumann's creates particles by hitting a fuel source such as magnesium with electric arcs. The ions that spray off are channeled through a magnetic nozzle, producing thrust."

How would the Neumann Drive be used? Reports say it would be mainly relevant for cargo missions, outperforming in fuel efficiency rather than acceleration. The drive's level of fuel efficiency is such that it could be used for keeping satellites in proper position in orbit or sending all the heavy equipment ahead of a manned mission somewhere, what Honi Soit called a "packhorse of space travel."

This level of fuel efficiency is such that it could be great for keeping satellites in their proper position in orbit, or cheaply sending all the heavy equipment ahead of a manned mission somewhere.—what Honi Soit called a "packhorse of space travel."

The Neumann Drive is also notable as it uses a variety of fuels. Neumann Space's answer to the question, what does it burn for fuel, is "anything that conducts electricity, though some things work better than others. We've tried various kinds of metals and even carbon rods. Some of which give us more fuel efficiency, some more power, and some are just more ubiquitous in outer space."

Another question came up on as to whether it could run on Vegemite and/or beer. The answer, from Neumann Space, was "it can work on both used beer and used Vegemite, if these are properly reduced down to their constituent carbon, and that carbon is sintered into a fuel rod that can fit one of the mostly-tungsten trigger wires."

Neumann will talk about the Neumann Drive soon, at the upcoming 15th Australian Space Research Conference, which runs from September 29 to October 1.

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User comments

Sep 25, 2015
Instead of to Mars & Back....Why not initially TOSS Toyotas from Japan to U.S?
Create a Tub in the Ocean so that surrounding area won't be disturbed.
Just say Good Bye to Slow Ships!

Sep 25, 2015
Look like energy lose a as "a" and for complete loss from boundary "b" time diff start to finish. A pulse with of [A], or the summation or view fro an charge of the entire spectrum of any plan parallel to the poynting vector along that line tangent to a sphere of a ghost particle along the line at a distance of r =1/scrt(4*Pi*E). get it? along the line of the poynting vector and in the direction of the vector I see a particle with opposite polarity of me a distance r along this line = ... QED But mind is a 4D space and ...

Sep 25, 2015
So the 1936 Flash Gordon spaceships were spot on after all.

Sep 25, 2015
Just what I thought, Rocket scientists are pin heads.

Sep 26, 2015
Nice specific impulse. I wonder what the power per unit force is and what kind of power generator it would require. One should be aware that rocket fuel efficiency is measured in many ways, of which the specific impulse is not the best - unless you want the rocket to reach a very high speed.

Sep 26, 2015
So how long would it take to accelerate 1kg to 0.2c in space using this new thruster?. I would work it out myself but 15000 seconds is not a force.

Sep 26, 2015
More thrust with an element (magnesium) under 1/5th of the molecular mass? They must 'burn' the magnesium >5x the rate (wrt xenon) or the exhaust velocity would have to be 5x as high.

( If its the latter then this engine is a gas guzzler as 5x the velocity means 25x the energy input! )

Sep 26, 2015
Previous Ion rockets suffered from ablation of the anode. In other words, it may be quite efficient, but how many hours can it run?

Sep 26, 2015
"specific impulse... as high as 14,690 (+/- 2000)..."

-This is apparently better than the mythical VASIMR (as of OCTOBER 6, 2009);

"The VASIMR has 4 Newtons of thrust (0.9 pounds) with a specific impulse of about 6,000 seconds.

"The VASIMR has two additional important features that distinguish it from other plasma propulsion systems. It has the ability to vary the exhaust parameters (thrust and specific impulse) in order to optimally match mission requirements. This results in the lowest trip time with the highest payload for a given fuel load.

"In addition, VASIMR has no physical electrodes in contact with the plasma, prolonging the engine's lifetime and enabling a higher power density than in other designs.

"To make a trip to Mars in 39 days, a 10- to 20-megawatt VASIMR engine ion engine would need to be coupled with nuclear power..."

-Specifically a reactor 200x the size currently available.

Sep 26, 2015
Dr Zubrin does not think much about the VASIMR engine.

The primary job of these projects is to attract money.

Sep 27, 2015
I have reservations about the effective useful lifetime of the cathode, which I think would deplete much faster than an anode-Xenon ion thruster.

Sep 28, 2015
These propulsion systems work well for long journeys, since the motion can axel to acceptable speeds, but the deceleration is questionable. Nice concept to reposition satellites, to bad we did not have this technology when the voyagers went to space, we could access the stars.

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