An Australian uni student says he’s smashed a NASA record for spacecraft propulsion

Making it so. Picture: Horst Burkhardt

A University of Sydney student is preparing to show the world how his new kind of ion space drive smashes the current record for fuel efficiency held by NASA.

Patrick “Paddy” Neumann will present at the 15th Australian Space Research Conference next week to talk about his “Neumann Drive”, a propulsion system that he says is at least a 30 per cent improvement than NASA’s world-record holder “HiPEP” system.

Now that the appropriate Australian patents have been locked down, and international applications are under way, Neumann is going public with his idea which he hopes will revolutionise how we think about space travel in several ways. He’s formed a company, Neumann Space, and together with its CEO Ian Whitchurch, they’ve helped us get our heads around it all before the Neumann Drive roadshow kicks fully into gear.

He’s been working on it since he was an undergrad

“The idea was originally mine, stemming out of a project I did while a third year student,” Neumann told BI. But he wanted to acknowledge his Masters and PhD supervisors, Professors Marcela Bilek and David McKenzie, who “helped me to narrow my focus and interpret any funky results that cropped up”.

He has form

Neumann won the Prime Minister’s Australia Asia Awards in 2012 round of the Endeavour Australia Awards, beating 1000 applicants in his division. He received the award from then PM Julia Gillard, who said the fact he was a rocket scientist was “pretty awesome”.

He then headed for the City University of Hong Kong to continue his PhD and test pulsed plasma spacecraft propulsion systems in its large vacuum chamber.

It’s not complicated if you don’t think about it too much

You’re no doubt aware of the standard propulsion model – burn a tankload of chemical fuels, achieve liftoff, burn more to thrust further into space, coast. But ion drives work by spitting out particles rapidly to push a spacecraft forward. So it’s a constant stream of tiny pushes, resulting in a long, slow acceleration.

Deep Space 1’s ion propulsion engine. Picture: NASA/Wikimedia Commons

It smashes NASA’s best efforts to date

NASA has an ion system called HiPEP – High Power Electric Propulsion – which holds the current record for ion drive efficiency. It can achieve 9,600 (+/- 200) seconds of specific impulse, which is a measure of how much thrust is generated per kilogram of fuel burnt.

The Neumann Drive has achieved up to 14,690 (+/- 2,000). Whereas NASA’s model runs on xenon gas, Neumann’s creates particles by hitting a fuel source such as magnesium with electric arcs. The ions that spray off are channelled through a magnetic nozzle, producing thrust.

According to NASA, a standard chemical rocket “has a specific impulse on the order of 300-400 seconds”. Chemical thrusters burn fuel around a 35 per cent efficiency rate. Ion thrusters, in comparison, can achieve a 90 per cent efficiency rate.

It’s not strong enough to actually launch spacecraft

Not unless it’s launching from another spacecraft in zero gravity. Ion thrusters exert about the same amount of force as you’d feel holding a dollar’s worth of loose change in your hand.

The Neumann Drive would be more suited to powering a cargo or transport ship over long distances, and would likely have to pair with another spacecraft to enable a transfer from space to planet surface, or vice versa.

Simple unit, incredibly complicated science. Picture: Horst Burkhardt

Regardless, those ‘one-way’ Mars missions might not be one-way after all?

“It is a funky idea, but we’re mainly looking at it in terms of reusable cargo missions,” Neumann says.

Using magnesium fuel, the system would get a pod to Mars and bring it back empty “in around 4-5 years”, depending on the orbital positions of the planets.

But the fuel can be switched up, too. Neumann says change it to molybdenum, and you could get a pod to Mars on a one-way trip in 10 months.

Plasma glow. Oh yes. Picture: Horst Burkhardt

The fuel can be collected from space

One of the most attractive aspects of the system is there’s a lot of fuel already in space, in the form of debris and defunct satellites.

And it’s not just about getting to other planets

Whitchurch said the commercial applications are undeniably attractive. He sees the Neumann Drive powering a type of space “towtruck” which can realign satellites and even the ISS as they slowly, but surely, have their orbits degraded by atmospheric drag.

“At the moment, you need to use a little bit of fuel right now to keep shifting them a little bit,” he says. “Once you run out fuel you’re space junk.

“Wouldn’t it be a good idea to refuel satellites already in orbit or put a space towtruck on them and keep them where they need to be?”

Whitchurch says the ISS alone requires seven tonnes of liquid fuel brought up to it each year to keep it on course.

Some cork-popping required. Picture Laura Lawrence

There’s a few big players already in the game

NASA has been developing ion drives for a while. Deep Space 1 was launched in 1998 and its most famous relative, Dawn, this year completed a 420 million kilometre journey to the dwarf planet Ceres.

It’s suspected the US Air Force is experimenting with the technology aboard its super secret space plane, the X37B, and Boeing launched two ion-driven satellites in March in conjunction with SpaceX.

Speaking of SpaceX

No, the company hasn’t approached Elon Musk, Virgin Galactic, Bezos Expeditions or anyone else to inject a huge whack of cash into Neumann Space. Yet.

“We want to see this out there in space, we don’t want this to become orphan technology,” Whitchurch says.

“It’s far more interesting for us in enabling things other people want to do with it, rather than someone keeping the tech proprietary and saying ‘If you want to do it, you have to do it through us.'”

Picture: Getty Images

So what happens now?

Fundraising, for starters. As the project transitions from lab testbed to engineering prototype, Neumann says the team will need some cash to “iron out the inevitable problems”.

The goal is to develop the system to a point where it can run 24/7 for a few months. This will prove that the system can deliver the momentum changes needed for space travel, Neumann says.

“I’d put it at level 4 on NASA’s Tech Readiness Level scale,” he says, “in that we’ve proven that the system works in a lab, but we need to transition towards engineering prototypes, rather than research prototypes.”

Neumann’s also on the conference trail, starting next week (September 30) at the 15th Australian Space Research Conference. Expect some more concrete details there, but today, he’s having a practice run for that at Sydney Uni’s Physics Lecture Theatre. It’s a public event and open at 1pm if you’re quick.

Sydney University chose not to be involved with the IP on it

Neumann actually owns the IP. He was asking Sydney Uni’s Commercial Development and Industrial Partnerships unit to help him protect it. They “decided against hazarding the uni’s money on the invention” and then assigned the rights in toto back to Neumann and his co-inventors.

That saddened him “a bit”, as he wanted to help the school of physics as it had been so helpful to him. But he hopes “if things go very well”, he can donate something back to the alma mater as “an eminent alumnus”.

UPDATE: The CDIP told us they’re in “ongoing negotiations” with Neumann Space.

They’re looking for funding, and have a unique model for investors

The team have spoken to a few “small satellite manufacturers overseas”, but they’re trying to avoid any form of business model that leads to investors clamouring for an IPO. Whitchurch instead prefers to sell licences for the ion drive to anyone willing to have a go at putting it to use in space. (You can start here if you’re interested.)

They’ll charge a “token amount” for Earth-based research and testing licences, “with transferable licences for use in space being more expensive”.

“While the technology is being developed, our plan is to sell these licences at a substantial discount, which will both allow us access to the funds to develop the technology, and allow investors to realise a profit by reselling those licences,” he said.

“This will mean investors won’t be relying on us to IPO, pay dividends or buy back shares to get liquidity.”