NASA's fuel efficiency record for space propulsion, held by NASA's HiPEP system, has been shattered by an Australian doctoral student at the University of Sydney.
The exciting news was broken by the University of Sydney student newspaper Honi Soit, with the provocative headline: "University of Sydney Student Smashes NASA Record For Fuel Efficiency; Mars and Back on a Tank of Fuel."
The record-breaking engine is a type of ion thruster, a kind of rocket that works by throwing particles backward really fast in order to propel a spacecraft forward. Called the Neumann Drive, it is named after its inventor, Patrick (Paddy) Neumann, who acknowledged his Masters and PhD supervisors for helping him "to narrow his focus and interpret any funky results that cropped up."
NASA's HiPEP system, the previous record holder, allows 9600 (+/- 200) seconds of specific impulse. Initial Neumann Drive tests blew that out of the water, with results as high as 14,690 (+/- 2000). Even the most conservative interpretation of these results would convincingly break NASA's record.
NASA's system was also designed specifically for xenon gas, but the Neumann Drive offers the benefit of operating on a variety of different metals. Tests have been performed so far on vanadium, magnesium, titanium and bismuth, with magnesium performing most efficiently. It ought to function on anything that conducts electricity, as it works through a reaction between electricity and metal.
"Electric arcs strike the chosen fuel and cause ions to spray, which are then focused by a magnetic nozzle to produce thrust," explains the Honi Soit article.
The drive is inferior to the NASA design when it comes to acceleration, but the savings in fuel could eventually make it ideal for cargo vessels. If you imagine a space opera-like future for space travel, this is the kind of engine that might propel barges and supply ships across the solar system. It could potentially run by recycling space junk, discarded metals from satellites and other defunct debris.
Given that this device was invented by an Australian, one popular question that's been asked is whether it might even run on Vegemite and/or beer. Amusingly, the answer is actually yes. According to Neumann Space, the new company founded by the drive's inventor (who of course took the time to answer this question), "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."