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EPFL’s Solar-Powered MicroThrust Ionic Motor Goes to Moon and Back With 3.38oz of Fuel


A new technology developed by scientists at the EPFL in Switzerland (where organic solar cells were invented) that allows for a 1 small satellite weighing 1 kg to travel from the Earth to the Moon with 100 grams of fuel. Now that’s what I call “fuel efficiency!”

Warning: This article is not about what’s averagely considered “green.” It’s about a technology that’s so cool and interesting and that one day may inspire other fuel-saving tech.

Did we get you attention? Half a liter (17 oz) is the size of an average bottle of water that you can take in your pocket, half a liter of gasoline can propel a car for like 4-5 kilometers… instead, this thing goes to the Moon with only a fifth of that!

Mind you, the Moon is almost 239,000 miles away, and the 1kg EPFL satellite is projected to circle the Earth some 1,000 times before it exits to head for its natural satellite.

So how did scientists do that?

A MicroThrust-enabled satellite

What they used is called an “ionic motor,” or MicroThrust. However, the “fuel” that this motor feeds with is no ordinary burnable fuel: it’s a chemical compound called EMI-BF4¬†– a solvent and an electrolyte in its earthly life (1-butyl-1-methyl-pyrrolidinium trifluormethane sulfonate).

The EMI-BF4 is composed of electrically charged molecules (ions). To produce thrust, these ions are picked by an electrode having 1,000 volts and ejected at a very high speed (40,000 km/h) through nozzles that resemble those from your inkjet printer. To eject both positive and negative ions, an alternating current is used at a frequency of 1 Hz.

However, because the energy onboard such a small satellite is limited to 4 watts, obtainable via solar cells, a special system had to be developed to overcome this issue. The system was developed by SystematIC Design, the Dutch company in charge of the motor’s electrical system.

It will take about six months for a satellite with MicroThrust to reach the Moon. It will be launched at the speed of 24,000 km/h and will eventually reach 40,000 km/h, which is the speed that the ions have.

MicroThrust will allow low-budget projects such as those launched by universities and small countries or even amateurs to reach any place in the solar system with limited power and size.

Well, MicroThrust may eventually evolve into something more advanced, something that may ultimately carry (un)manned spaceships to remote places of the universe without the expense of burning fuel. Of course, at the speed that such a cube is moving right now, it’s only useful for relatively small distances, like that to the Moon, or picking up space debris, like the¬†CleanSpace One mission.

Big hopes are set for the MicroThrust and I think it’s common-sensed for one to think that it’s only a matter of time until it’s scaled up for bigger purposes.

Watch the EPFL video below to get a glimpse of what this technology is all about:

[via physorg]

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