Aerospace Engineering grad, Neil Laya

Aerospace Engineering grad, Neil Laya

Michael Mercier | UAH

The University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH), a part of The University of Alabama System, has announced that Neil Laya, an aerospace engineering graduate student, has been awarded an Alabama Space Grant Consortium (ASGC) Fellowship. Laya also was recently recognized for receiving Honorable Mention by the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program.

Selected Graduate Research Fellows conduct research over the course of a 12-month period and may be renewed annually for a maximum total award of 36 months. The award includes $24,000 as a student stipend and up to $12,000 for tuition/insurance and $1,000 student travel allowance. Fellows are expected to devote full-time to graduate study and research during the tenure of the fellowship.

“I am incredibly grateful for the opportunity,” Laya says. “The financial support, as well as all the great connections I expect to make through the program, are a huge help to my academic and career pursuits. Most of all, I am grateful for learning about such a ground-breaking technology. Doing research on this system is truly a dream come true.”

As part of the grant, an extramural NASA work-study experience is required sometime during the fellowship year with the NASA lab facility where the student plans to participate in a research activity (which can be conducted virtually).

“I will be performing my research at UAH’s Plasma and Electrodynamics Research Lab within the Propulsion Research Center,” Laya notes. “We anticipate working closely with a start-up company based out of Florida called Spacewave that is the principal developer of the technology.”

Laya’s research mentor has been Dr. Gabriel “Gabe” Xu, a UAH associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering.

“My research under Dr. Xu began my second semester of freshman year. I have always been interested in more ‘exotic’ forms of rocket propulsion, so electric propulsion (EP) was a perfect match,” the student says. “The possibility of joining the Plasma and Electrodynamics Research Lab (PERL) was one of the primary reasons I chose UAH. I have been working on various parts of EP ever since. I knew that winning a fellowship was effectively the only way I could continue doing so through grad school. The biggest component of the applications was the research proposal, so it was crucial I chose something groundbreaking, yet attainable.”

The ASGC, as a participant in the National Space Grant College and Fellowship Program (NSGCFP), provides support for graduate students to supplement and enhance basic research. The program requires that students participate in an active, defined research activity in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) field that has NASA Mission Directorate applications with commercial space or at the U.S. National Lab on the International Space Station (ISS).

“Dr. Xu had briefly mentioned a new propulsion system concept based on Torsional Magnetic Reconnection (TMR) that he had read a few papers on,” Laya says. “I fell in love with the concept and knew I just had to work on it. Luckily, Dr. Xu was a big help in guiding me through my initial research. We were able to lay out a rough plan for the various research phases, as well as the numerous tests/analyses I proposed to perform. I believe having those details was absolutely crucial!”

Magnetic reconnection is a physical process occurring in highly conducting plasmas in which magnetic energy is converted to kinetic energy, thermal energy and particle acceleration to produce thrust for space propulsion.

“I believe there are two main factors that really helped this proposal stand out,” Laya says. “The first is that the initial simulations of a TMR propulsion system indicate performance characteristics that are truly groundbreaking. We are talking specific impulse values upwards of 20,000 seconds. If using a ‘gas mileage’ analogy for specific impulse, this would be similar to a new car being advertised with over 300 mpg. Such technology would be revolutionary for spacecraft propulsion. I imagine another big factor in my application was the level of detail I projected in my plan. By dividing the proposal into a number of relatively independent phases, I made sure that if I encountered an issue in any specific stage, I would still have performed meaningful research. Hopefully this showed that I had a high chance of at least some amount of success.”

The Alabama Space Grant Consortium was formed in 1989 when NASA implemented the National Space Grant College and Fellowship Program. It is a voluntary association of all seven Research Universities in the state along with other community colleges, educational outreach, industrial and government elements.

The mission of the ASGC is to inspire, enable and educate Alabama students to take up careers in space science and aerospace technology as the next generation of space explorers while helping to promote U.S. leadership in space exploration and aerospace technology in the future. The organization aims to “bring increased realization of the value of space science and technology to the people of Alabama.” The ASGC seeks to reach students from traditionally underrepresented backgrounds in the science and engineering professions and encourage them to pursue research and careers in STEM fields that support NASA's Mission Directorates.

“This year I plan to begin the initial construction of a TMR propulsion device,” Laya says. “There are effectively four phases to construction and immediate analysis. The first is development of a coaxial plasma gun to serve as the propellant and longitudinal current source. The second is a set of anti-parallel wire coils that create a constrained point in space with no magnetic field. The third phase combines these two components to instigate TMR which leads to all sorts of bizarre and interesting effects. Finally, the device as a whole will be analyzed for parameters (such as thrust and specific impulse) that are important to propulsion systems. Unsurprisingly, this will all be a multi-year long affair.”

The plan for Laya’s research is to construct, analyze and optimize a basic form of a propulsion system developed by Spacewave LLC.

“The propulsion system relies on using a physical process known as ‘magnetic reconnection’ to accelerate ions to incredible speeds,” he says. “This is the same process that causes the intense production of high velocity plasma jets on the surface of the sun and in solar flares. In its essence, magnetic reconnection is the breaking and restructuring of magnetic field lines in a plasma. The device I will be studying uses a controlled form of this process to produce thrust. My research will include plasma analysis on all aspects of the device, as well as analysis on the performance aspects as a propulsion system. Hopefully, by understanding the physics occurring within the device, a highly optimized and improved version of the device can be built to be used in a nuclear-powered interplanetary spacecraft.”

The graduate student is excited to see what the future holds and how the grant might impact his academic direction and career.

“This fellowship is the opportunity of a lifetime to work on advanced propulsion systems,” Laya says. “This fellowship has also encouraged me to make the decision of continuing on to a doctorate degree. Perhaps one day my experience will lead to a career in advanced propulsion!”