New ion engine is so efficient that it could go to Mars and back on a single tank of fuel

ion drive mars mission emdrive thruster
NASA
A University of Sydney researcher claims to have created the world’s most efficient ion engine, beating out even NASA’s esteemed HiPEP engine, which currently holds the record for ion drive performance. Dr Patrick Neumann created the engine as part of his Ph.D thesis and is using the invention to form the basis of his new company Neumann Space, reports Honi Soit, the weekly student newspaper from the University of Sydney.

For the uninitiated, ion engines are basically low-thrust propulsion systems with a long runtime, which makes them perfect for spacecraft flight. The engines generate thrust by ionizing a propellant gas and then accelerating that gas through the engine using an electrostatic or electromagnetic field. There are a variety of ion engines that use different ionizing materials and different propulsion systems.

The Neumann drive is very different from NASA’s HiPEP counterpart, relying on basic principles to power the drive. In Neumann’s system, he uses a solid propellant and an electrical arc to vaporize the propellant into a cloud of ions, electrons and neutral vapor. This mixture is accelerated through an anode ring and then focused using a magnetic field. This combination pushes the gas mixture out in a contiguous pattern of short and light bursts.

Neumann’s engine has several advantages that set it apart from competing ion drives. First, the Neumann prototype uses basic principles of physics for its propulsion system and is simple in design, which makes it easy to operate and repair. Also, it can be powered by several different commonly-found metallic substrates, with the best thus far being magnesium. This multi-fuel capability contrasts with NASA’s drive, which requires the gas Xenon to run.

The current reigning ion engine is NASA’s HiPEP engine, which is a complex, finely-tuned Hall thruster that produces up to 30 to 40 µN/W of thrust. The Neumann engine lags behind the Hall thruster in terms of thrust (20 µN/W), but its solid propellant gives it a big boost when it comes to specific impulse, which gauges an engine’s efficiency by calculating its thrust over time. While the Hall thruster provides 9,600 (+/- 200) seconds of specific impulse, the Neumann drive is calculated at 14,690 (+/- 2000) seconds. This means Neumann’s drive uses fuel more efficiently and thus can fly longer than its NASA counterpart, possibly even making it to “Mars and back on single tank of fuel,” suggested Neumann.

Neumann will continue to improve the performance of the drive as part of his new company Neumann Space, which has been granted a provisional patent for technology. Neumann will be presenting his research during the 15th Australian Space Research Conference, which will be held on September 30 at the Australian Defense Force Academy.

Emerging Tech

Climeworks wants to clean the atmosphere with a fleet of truck-sized vacuums

Using machines that resemble jet engines, Climeworks wants to fight climate change by extracting CO2 from thin air. The gas can then be sold to carbonated drink and agriculture companies, or sequestered underground.
Cars

This vintage Ford Bronco off-roader has a modern electric powertrain

Zero Labs took a classic Ford Bronco and replaced its gasoline engine with an electric motor and lithium-ion battery pack. So you get the style and off-road capability of a Bronco, but with zero emissions.
Cars

The VR goggles you wear to shoot alien ships is helping Magna design car parts

Canadian automotive supplier Magna has started using virtual reality in its research and development department. The technology helps engineers get a better view of what they're working on, whether it's an interior part or a powertrain.
Trash

The best noise-canceling headphones paint your music on a cleaner canvas

Drowning out the sound of babies, jet engines, and the outside world isn't as difficult as it seems. Here are the best noise-canceling headphones, whether you're concerned with style, comfort, or sound.
Emerging Tech

Awesome Tech You Can’t Buy Yet: Robots that eat landmines and clean your floors

Check out our roundup of the best new crowdfunding projects and product announcements that hit the web this week. You may not be able to buy this stuff yet, but it's fun to gawk!
Emerging Tech

SpaceX experiences problem during test, Crew Dragon capsule may have exploded

SpaceX has experienced a problem during the testing of its Crew Dragon capsule. During the engine test firing at Cape Canaveral yesterday afternoon, an unspecified anomaly occurred which lead to plumes of smoke rising from the test site.
Emerging Tech

The grid of the future will be powered by … giant subterranean bagpipes?

In order to transition to a more renewable-focused energy system, we need to scale up our grid storage capacity --- and our existing methods aren't going to cut it. Could compressed air be the key?
Emerging Tech

Beresheet crash caused by manual command, but reflector device may have survived

Details are emerging about what may have gone wrong with spacecraft Beresheet's failed moon landing. A manual command was entered which led to a chain reaction. But NASA still hopes to salvage use of its Laser Retroreflector Array device.
Emerging Tech

The oldest type of molecule in the universe has been located at last

A milestone in the development of the early universe was the combination of helium and hydrogen atoms into a molecule called helium hydride. But strangely enough, this ancient molecule has never been detected in space before now.
Emerging Tech

Mercury’s wobble as it spins reveals that it has an inner solid core

Scientists have long wondered what the inside of Mercury looks like, and they now have strong evidence that the planet has a large and solid metallic core. The data for the new findings was collected by the now-defunct MESSENGER mission.
Emerging Tech

Gravitational forces at heart of Milky Way shaped this star cluster like a comet

Hubble has captured the stunning Messier 62 cluster. The cluster is warped, with a long tail which stretches out to form a shape like a comet. It is thought this distortion is due to Messier 62's proximity to the center of the galaxy.
Emerging Tech

Burgers are just the beginning: Embracing the future of lab-grown everything

You’ve almost certainly heard of the 'farm to fork' movement, but what about 'lab to table'? Welcome to the fast-evolving world of lab-grown meat. Is this the future of food as we know it?
Emerging Tech

Troubleshooting Earth

It’s no secret that humans are killing the planet. Some say it’s actually so bad that we’re hurtling toward a sixth major extinction event -- one which we ourselves are causing. But can technology help us undo the damage we’ve…
Emerging Tech

Inside the Ocean Cleanup’s ambitious plan to rid the ocean of plastic waste

In 2013, Boyan Slat crowdfunded $2.2 million to fund the Ocean Cleanup, a nonprofit organization that builds big, floating trash collectors and sets them out to sea, where they’re designed to autonomously gobble up garbage.