Firing Off Charged Nanoparticles Might Allow Spaceships to Move at Near-Light Speed

By Eric Wolff | July 16, 2009 11:05 am

Maybe it’s because nanoFET sounds like Boba Fett, but the name just screams “science fiction” to me. The device is still in very early stages of development, but it could theoretically propel spaceships into the vicinity of light speed. And getting close to light speed means going to other solar systems, and THAT means a science fiction-like reality. So work with me here.

If a nanoparticle field emission thruster (the aforementioned NanoFET) has been a subject of investigation for University of Michigan electrical engineer Brian Gilchrist for several years now. Gilchrist, joined by a team of scientists, has published and presented papers (pdf) at conferences (pdf) around the country, trying to show the theory of how electronically charged nanotubes could enable a spaceship to achieve astonishing speeds.

As Gilchrist envisions it, a nanoFET engine would be installed as a series of flat plates around our spaceship—let’s say the Millennium Falcon. So instead of the white glare of rockets pointed off the back of the Falcon as it flees TIE fighters, there would be a series of flat panels that resemble the silicon wafers that go into microchips (the MEMS production process would be very similar). Each panel would be covered in round discs, each 10 centimeters in diameter, which in turn would be comprised of thousands of emitters, each roughly 100 micrometers in diameter.

Each emitter works a bit like an tiny particle accelerator: The anode of the emitter charges the nanoparticles, which are then accelerated and then shot out a tube by a strong magnetic field generated by a stack of microchip-like components. “In that a particle accelerator uses an electrical field to propel charged particles to high speeds — that’s exactly what we’re doing,” Gilchrist told MSNBC. Thanks to Newton’s third law, as the ship ejects particles in one direction, the ship moves in the opposite direction. Eject long, thin nanotubes for high-efficiency, slow acceleration; use short, thick nanotubes for better acceleration at greater cost of energy. The NanoFet could potentially eject nearly any type of nanoparticle that would take a charge.

The nanoFET is also remarkable flexible and scalable. A plate of nearly any size could be placed more or less anywhere on the object to be propelled, and each plate could be nearly any size. So instead of the Millennium Falcon merely being the fastest hunk of junk in the galaxy, it could also be astonishingly maneuverable, with smaller plates on different parts of the hull to establish tight turns and sudden changes in direction.

The only real downside is that nanoFETs are not imagined to provide the kind of high acceleration needed to break Earth’s gravity and escape orbit. But once in space, a ship equipped with nanoFET would have an extremely thin and lightweight engine with a commensurately compact fuel source. The nanoFET would be able achieve nearly constant acceleration. Do that for long enough, and speeds of 90 percent of light speed might become possible. Just think, if the Americans in Armageddon had a nanoFET powered space ship available to get out and intercept that asteroid, that whole Affleck-Armageddon fiasco could have been avoided. And wouldn’t we all want that?

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space Flight, Transportation

Comments (14)

  1. JD

    VERY cool. Space travel without exploding gallons and gallons of liquid fuel, and hence wasting most of your energy just carrying the fuel itself. I always wonder why NASA and most world governemnts that participate in space exploration still use liquid fuel when the impracticality of it should be apparent.

    Investing our resources in this type of advancement would benefit our world not only in terms of knowledge gained, but for the materialistic among us, (read: Average Americans who don’t care about science much, or pay attention to anything that’s not on TV) the resources to be exploited should be a huge lure to space exporation too.

    I have a couple of questions that I didn’t see mentioned above: This EM equipment seems like it would be vulnerable to interference from all the random cosmic rays that permeate space once we leave our Sun’s heliosphere. I wonder if that’s been considered, or is worth consideration. Would the technology be easy to maintain and repair?

    Other than those concerns, this sounds like the perfect way for us to go back into space. With nanoFET we could focus on improving the design of future vessels to better accommodate the human requirements of space travel.

  2. Dave English

    Interesting. Nano particles have real mass compared to ions, one of their compeditors, so they should be able to accelerate more rapidly than ion powered ships. We have a lot to learn about interstellar flight, the first step is for us to get an idea about stellar distances. At 300,000 mph, it takes 2235 years to travel just one light year or 9388 years to arrive at the nearest (known today) star at 4.2 ly. I know we talk about traveling great percentages of light speed, 70% which is 469,430,640 mph, but what don’t we know about traveling at great speeds? And someone needs to calculate how long it would take for a nano powered engine to reach such speeds, then you have decelerate too. A 150 foot wide spaceship (45.72 meters) would pass through over 1.378X10X12 cubic meters a second at 70% light speed. That’s a lot of space, a volume that would fill a sphere 8.57 miles accross every second. Is it all empty? Don’t believe so, but we will solve problems as they become evident. Good idea overall.

  3. Dave English

    I had corrected the number of cubic meters the spaceship would pass through in one second but it posted my original numbers. So here are the recaculated numbers of cubic meters that the ship would pass through in one second, 3.445X10X11, and that would equal the volume of a sphere 5.4 miles wide, still a lot of space per second.

  4. Dunc

    Interesting idea – but how much reaction mass is needed?

  5. Roadtripper


    On p4 of the PDF linked to above, the authors discuss Isp values as high as 10,000 seconds, which equates to an exhaust velocity of almost 100km/sec. So it’ll use a lot less reaction mass than anything flying today, but it doesn’t look to me like it’s efficient enough for a starship, by a couple orders of magnitude.

    (Check my math? Thanks.)


  6. Timbo

    I would hope that some sort of inertial dampening device would also be in place on this space ship. We wouldn’t want any future astronauts to become thin layers of goo on the back wall of this ship once the device is enabled.

  7. Damian

    inertial dampers for a force which is less substantial than the exhalation force against your body? Probably not necessary.

  8. devils advocate

    Is this not just another fancy ioniser?

    ionisers give of charged particles due to the high voltage.These charge particles can be further accelerated by fields.Just increase the number of needles or use a rough surface or wire wool.

  9. Dave

    Where do the nanoparticles come from? Isn’t this mass (as opposed to massless) fuel? Wouldn’t this fuel need to be carried on-board? And be expendable? Yes, they’re small, but apparently used at a high rate and you can run out(?)

    Clue me!

  10. Borg Forever

    The Borg have it right with their Cube.

  11. jz

    How long would it take to accelerate to that speed (ideally the acceleration would be 1Gee but likely it would be less?) ?

  12. lamanga2004

    jz :

    v = u + at

    if initial velocity, u, is zero, then final velocity, v, is the product of acceleration and time.

    and if acceleration = 1g, then:

    v = gt

    t = v/g

    Assume g = 10 m/s per second

    Then the time taken to accelerate to y m/s is about 1/1oth of y.

    speed of light, c, = 3 x 10^8 m/s = 300,000,000 m/s

    70% of this is approx 200,000,000 m/s

    1/10th of this is 20,000,000 seconds

    20,000,000 seconds is 230 days.

    So after 8 months you’d be going 70% of the speed of light. (And your clock would run 40% more slowly than a clock on earth – after 10 years onboard, your friends on earth would have aged 14 years…)

    Question for you: How fast would you be going after a further 8 months of continuous acceleration of 10m/s per second?

  13. Skrim

    This sounds like an improved variant of the core ion engine concept to me, one which uses nanoparticles as reaction mass and yet another variation on the way of accelerating them.

    I’d like to see it compared to other interplanetary electric propulsion forms, like the VASIMR or MPD thruster.

    Interstellar travel is still beyond gonna be beyond our reach though for a long long time. Regardless of what engine you use, you’d need an incredible amount of energy and reaction mass to get near the speed of light, and that kind of energy we simply do not have.


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