Ever had a really great idea that could change the world?
Conor Lawrence did.
And not only did he have an idea – he followed it up and has had his efforts recognised by the international engineering community.
While studying electrical engineering at Otago Polytechnic, the 25-year-old Oamaru man created a system that used ionic propulsion to potentially improve the lift and increase the performance of aircraft wings.
He presented his project – which he believed could be a “green alternative” to propulsion – to the International Youth Conference on Energy (IYCE) in Bled, Slovenia, and received the award for best presentation.
The forum covered topics such as sustainable energy, environmental issues, high-voltage technology and power systems, and 67 students from more than 20 countries attended.
It was the first time a student from New Zealand had attended the conference.
“It is still sinking in. It is quite surreal, to be honest,” Mr Lawrence said.
He designed his system while studying for a bachelor of engineering technology at Otago Polytechnic.
He was introduced to ionic propulsion by his lecturer, Dr William Phipps, but was the first to implement the technology on an aircraft wing.
By applying a high voltage through electrodes connected to the wing, neutral molecules in the air were ionised, which created an acceleration of air across the wing’s surface, he said.
“It will electrically generate an artificial wind over the wing, increasing the air flow over its surface, resulting in an improvement in lift force exerted on the wing.”
The next step was working on the safety aspect and replicating the process on a fixed-wing aircraft.
“The biggest problem I had so far was arcing, so quite often my experiments would burst into flames.
“Even in failure, it was still spectacular.”
It was “just the beginning” of the research, which on a smaller scale resulted in a slight improvement in lift force on the wing, but, unexpectedly, a significant reduction of drag.
“My paper was purely proof of concept. There will definitely be some complications further down the road.
“The potential is definitely there. It could be a green alternative to propulsion.”
Due to the propulsion having fewer mechanical parts, there could be reduced maintenance on the aircraft.
The potential downsides were safety-related.
“You are applying a high voltage to the system so you have to make sure the system is isolated from the rest of the aircraft.
“Most aircraft are pretty conductive.”
The conference was the culmination of Mr Lawrence’s tertiary studies and this week he started a job as an graduate engineer at Network Waitaki.
He said he was looking forward to getting into the workforce.
“For the project I am not too sure what the next step is, but I will still keep in contact with Dr Phipps.