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A hybrid engine is under development that combines the advantages of a chemical rocket and electric propulsion to make travel in space less time consuming and more energy efficient.

“Right now, there are two ways to go to space: One of them is through chemical rocket that for example is how cruise gets to the international space station; the other way is mostly deep space travel through Ion propulsion,” said Peter Vorobieff, a professor of mechanical engineering at the University of New Mexico, who is working on this project in collaboration with Dark Sea Industries, a local aerospace company targeted at introducing new propulsion technologies to access space.

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A chemical rocket generates a lot of thrust so it can deliver a large mass. However, its efficiency remains limited and it requires a lot of reaction mass, Vorobieff said. The ion propulsion systems used for deep space probes are thrifty for fuel consumption, but they cannot generate much thrust, he said.

“To go from one place to another, they have to generate thrust for months and as a result, they are kind of OK for robot probes, but are not good for human travel,” he said.

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Vorobieff and his team are trying to combine the advantages of chemical and ion propulsion by ionizing the discharge of air breathing or a chemical route. That would allow them to have much higher velocity with the same amount of fuel, he said.

“This project is in the early stages of development. We just recently demonstrated physically that what we want to do is feasible. So what lies ahead is testing and more testing. We are talking about the very first year or two years of a development cycle that probably will be 10 years,” he said.

The project received a small grant from New Mexico Small Business Assistance Program and the scientists are applying for more funds. The scientists are also looking to build partnerships across the globe.

“We met a group of researchers from England who are also working on a similar project, so we are also planning to establish collaboration with them. This is a low-probability of success, high pay-off kind of project. If it worked, it will seriously change space travel and also possibly atmospheric travel,” he said.

If successful, the technology will save 10 to 20 percent of fuel mass during travel to space, Vorobieff said.

“It means in case of its success, the project will allow scientists to go places where they could not go before. It will also make higher speeds possible; that means radically cutting down the travel time. Instead of half-a-year or year, it could take weeks or months,” he said.

Craig Davidson, administrator of Dark Sea Industries, said essentially they are developing an electric jet engine.

“We believe it can replace a large engine on a 777 class airplane and do it for dramatically lesser cost. That also means less pollution,” he said.

He said the first phase of the project allowed the scientists to test the ionization part and now the next stage will be to take it and combine it with the coil designed under a second NMSBA grant.

“During the second phase we will produce realistic thrust and show that the ionization can be manipulated to produce greater thrust,” Davidson said.

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