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: Earth survived near-miss from 2012 solar storm: NASA

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Firefighters battle wild blazes in Spain

1 hour ago

Spanish firefighters on Saturday battled forest blazes that have destroyed hundreds of hectares of parched land and forced scores of people from their homes, authorities said.

Kingston, Jamaica hybrid project to harness sun and wind

11 hours ago

A hybrid energy project in Kingston, Jamaica, aims to satisfy the need for money-saving renewable energy. U.S.-based WindStream Technologies recently announced the wind solar hybrid installation commissioned ...

Archaeologists excavate NY Colonial battleground

11 hours ago

Archaeologists are excavating an 18th-century battleground in upstate New York that was the site of a desperate stand by Colonial American troops, the flashpoint of an infamous massacre and the location of the era's largest ...

Google eyes Chrome on Windows laptop battery drain

19 hours ago

Google Chrome on Microsoft Windows has been said to have a problem for some time but this week comes news that Google will give it the attention others think the problem quite deserves. Namely, Google is to ...

Security contest techies say they hacked Tesla Model S

21 hours ago

The good news: Tomorrow's cars are computers on wheels. The bad news: Tomorrow's cars are computers on wheels. Ma Jie, writing in Bloomberg News, reported this week that the Tesla Model S sedan was the target ...

Recommended for you

Bacteria manipulate salt to build shelters to hibernate

9 hours ago

For the first time, Spanish researchers have detected an unknown interaction between microorganisms and salt. When Escherichia coli cells are introduced into a droplet of salt water and is left to dry, b ...

How do we terraform Venus?

9 hours ago

It might be possible to terraform Venus some day, when our technology gets good enough. The challenges for Venus are totally different than for Mars. How will we need to fix Venus?

Biomarkers of the deep

10 hours ago

Tucked away in the southwest corner of Spain is a unique geological site that has fascinated astrobiologists for decades. The Iberian Pyrite Belt (IPB) in Spain's Río Tinto area is the largest known deposit ...

Image: Chandra's view of the Tycho Supernova remnant

12 hours ago

More than four centuries after Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe first observed the supernova that bears his name, the supernova remnant it created is now a bright source of X-rays. The supersonic expansion of ...

User comments : 0