For release December 1, 2004


Development of a magnetohydrodynamics (MHD) generator light enough to fly on futuristic aircraft and aerospace vehicles and produce megawatts of power required for special military applications is in its second stage at The University of Tennessee Space Institute.

Under a $500,000 sub-contract in the 2002 fiscal year, UTSI built a test facility in its propulsion laboratory for the program headed by General Atomics of San Diego. The program was not funded the next year, but it was allotted $2.2 million in FY04. UTSI has now received $750,000 as its share of this second appropriation, and Congress has promised more for FY05.

“With the money we received in August, we’re building on what we learned in the first year and upgrading our test facility to increase its performance,” said Dr. Trevor Moeller, research associate professor who heads UTSI’s work on the project.

Since Congress has pledged another $3.1 million to the project for FY05, UTSI expects to partner with General Atomics on the Hypersonic Vehicle Electric Power System (HVEPS) program for at least two more years. John Lineberry, a former UTSI employee now with Lytec, LLC in the UTSI Research Park, is another sub-contractor.

HVEPS is responding to the U.S. Air Force’s requirement to develop multi-megawatt electrical power systems for hypersonic vehicle applications ranging from MHD compression and plasma combustion control of the hypersonic scramjet engines to directed energy applications. Hypersonic vehicles offer the unique capability of a non-nuclear rapid strike option against foreign terrorist bases or deep underground command and control targets.

The Air Force Research Laboratory, Propulsion Directorate, and the Naval Air Warfare Center, Weapons Division are “our customers,” Moeller said. The Air Force project manager is Mr. Rene Thibodeaux.

“There may be other reasons for wanting to find a high power source in the future,” said Moeller, a two-time graduate of UTSI who joined the Institute’s faculty earlier this year. He says he has recently learned of interest in powering small MHD power generators with supersonic turbojets for more near term applications.

Describing MHD as “a way of extracting electricity from a stream of hot gas flowing through an applied magnetic field,” Moeller said, “We want a uniform hot gas flow to enter the MHD generator, which requires an ionized gas stream to conduct electricity.”

“In our last meeting with General Atomics,” Moeller said, “the game plan was to upgrade our test facility, partner on a generator and superconducting magnet design, and then, with FY05 funding, to finish building and testing.” Once the team completes assembly of the MHD channel and fabrication of the superconducting magnet, they will start running sub-scale tests.

While conventional electromagnets are too heavy to be carried in an airplane, “General Atomics’ superconducting magnet technology will allow us to achieve flight-weight,” Moeller said. “The generator must be light enough to fly.” UTSI’s past experience with magnetohydrodynamics allowed researchers to cut costs in the first phase by “using many existing instruments and components – such as combustor and nozzle -- from prior MHD projects,” Moeller said. “Now, we’re making improvements.”

Dr. Dennis Keefer was primary investigator during the first phase of the UTSI effort, and Dr. Roger Crawford “oversaw much of the test facility build-up,” Moeller said. Both now retired as UTSI professors, Keefer and Crawford are consultants on the current project.

UTSI has sub-contracted with Dr. Charles Merkle, a former professor at the Space Institute now with Purdue University, to continue developing an advanced MHD computer simulation based on a code developed by Dr. Merkle. According to Moeller, “This advanced code will allow us to gain insight into details of the physical processes that occur in these MHD generators.”

The UTSI team is using optical diagnostics and a specially designed electrical conductivity channel that allows them to measure the electrical conductivity of the flow – one of the most important parameters in designing an MHD generator, Moeller says.

The test facility is combustion driven – essentially a rocket engine – that burns hydrocarbon fuel and oxygen with an added substance that allows the team to achieve a required electrical conductivity at achievable temperatures.

“We are working with our partners to make sure that incorporating the generator into the test facility will go as smoothly as possible,” Moeller says. “Ours is a research program, and the first step is proving feasibility.”



Dr. Trevor Moeller checks the test facility, which is being upgraded in UTSI’s propulsion building.

Writer: Weldon Payne (931) 393-7222