Meet the Aussie space doctor giving NASA a run for its money

Meet the Aussie space doctor giving NASA a run for its money

Blasting a rocket into orbit uses a lot of fuel, but an Australian scientist may have solved the problem. YP cadets Jimmy Chu and Eric Yang meet space doctor Paddy Neumann

Not many people outside science-fiction can claim to be a doctor of space. Even fewer can claim the title "Doctor of Space Plasma". Dr Patrick "Paddy" Neumann is one of them.

Ok, so that's not his real title, but the Australian plasma propulsion PhD scientist has created and patented a new type of propulsion system - the "Neumann Drive" as he calls it. It is designed to send state-of-the-art deep space probes further and more efficiently than traditional chemical rockets.

To boldly go …

The previous record for rocket fuel efficiency was set by Nasa's High Power Electronic Propulsion (HiPEP) ion thruster back in 2003. The HiPEP has 9,000 seconds of specific impulse - a measurement used to rate thrust and power and show how efficient the fuel is.

In comparison, the Neumann Drive has a fuel efficiency reading of 14,690 seconds.

"It works on physics similar to an electric arc welder, with an anode and a cathode," explains Neumann. "When we strike an arc, we have plasma being created.

"Material is then liquified, evaporated, ionised, ejected, and accelerated.

"Plasma moves away rather quickly, and through the laws of momentum, you get pushed in the other direction like a bullet recoil."

One of the major differences between the Neumann Drive and HiPEP is that the former uses metal for fuel, with different metals resulting in different levels of efficiency.

Neumann says that under proper conditions, magnesium plasma yields the best results - and with this kind of efficiency, his Neumann Drive could send a spaceship to Mars and back on only 20kg of fuel.

Neumann's master plan isn't without its flaws, and solving the question of thrust is proving a problem.

"The Neumann Drive doesn't generate as much of an explosive boost as traditional thrusters are capable of. It needs to be in a weak orbit to get the job done," he says.

But Neumann is in the process of experimenting with metals used to construct satellites, with the idea that his Drive could be powered by using "space junk" - the broken or out-of-use satellites currently floating around our planet.

He hinted that some major space agencies have contacted the project for possible funding and assistance.

When he's not testing whether beer can fuel the drive - which, by the way, it can - Neumann is blogging weekly updates on the Neumann Space website.

"If you think about it, there's a real financial side to all this," says Neumann. He imagines a future where space fuel stations mean there's no need to haul heavy fuel into orbit.

Given the potential economic benefits of using the Drive, Neumann also says the technology could mean many more companies and governments would be willing to invest more in space exploration.

Behind the Drive

Neumann first visited Hong Kong as a transfer student, spending nearly two years at City University.

Neumann has been passionate about science for as long as he can remember.

"When I was five, I taped anything remotely connected to Voyager 2 from the TV," he recalled.

"By the time I was six, I was finished with every book about dinosaurs in my school's library."

He explains how he felt destined to spread his wings in the field of engineering.

Going the extra mile

"I grew up in a town heavily based around mining. If I hadn't gone the extra mile and had listened to my brothers instead, I'd be doing a double degree in mining engineering and either chemistry or geology."

Despite his unusual career path, Neumann says his family has been his biggest fans ever since he decided to pursue science.

"All I can say is, if we get the Drive to work, it will revolutionise space travel."

This article appeared in the Young Post print edition as
The Drive for further and higher

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