A traveling-wave engine to power deep space travel

Sep 17, 2004

A University of California scientist working at Los Alamos National Laboratory and researchers from Northrop Grumman Space Technology have developed a novel method for generating electrical power for deep-space travel using sound waves. The traveling-wave thermoacoustic electric generator has the potential to power space probes to the furthest reaches of the Universe.

In research reported in a recent issue of the journal Applied Physics Letters, Laboratory scientist Scott Backhaus and his Northrop Grumman colleagues, Emanuel Tward and Mike Petach, describe the design of a thermoacoustic system for the generation of electricity aboard spacecraft. The traveling-wave engine/linear alternator system is similar to the current thermoelectric generators in that it uses heat from the decay of a radioactive fuel to generate electricity, but is more than twice as efficient.

The new design is an improvement over current thermoelectric devices used for the generation of electricity aboard spacecraft. Such devices convert only 7 percent of the heat source energy into electricity. The traveling-wave engine converts 18 percent of the heat source energy into electricity. Since the only moving component in the device besides the helium gas itself is an ambient temperature piston, the device possesses the kind of high-reliability required of deep space probes.

The traveling-wave engine is a modern-day adaptation of the 19th century thermodynamic invention of Robert Stirling –– the Stirling engine –– which is similar to a steam engine, but uses heated air instead of steam to drive a piston. The traveling-wave engine works by sending helium gas through a stack of 322 stainless-steel wire-mesh discs called a regenerator. The regenerator is connected to a heat source and a heat sink that causes the helium to expand and contract. This expansion and contraction creates powerful sound waves –– in much the same way that lightning in the atmosphere causes the thermal expansion that produces thunder. These oscillating sound waves in the traveling-wave engine drive the piston of a linear alternator that generates electricity.

NASA funded the traveling-wave thermoacoustic electric generator research.

Source: DOE/Los Alamos National Laboratory

Explore further: New Horizons spacecraft experiences anomaly

Related Stories

Recommended for you

A giant Pac-Man to gobble up space debris

14 minutes ago

The Clean Space One Project has passed a milestone. The space cleanup satellite will deploy a conical net to capture the small SwissCube satellite before destroying it in the atmosphere. It's one of the solutions ...

Astronomers see pebbles poised to make planets

1 hour ago

A team of astronomers led from St Andrews and Manchester universities today (6 July) announced the discovery of a ring of rocks circling a very young star. This is the first time these 'pebbles', thought ...

Do micro-organisms explain features on comets?

1 hour ago

Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko, studied in detail by the European Space Agency Rosetta and Philae spacecraft since September 2014, is a body with distinct and unexpected features. Now two astronomers have ...

User comments : 0

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.