UAH doctoral student lands Department of Energy internship

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Andrew Walsten, a UAH doctoral student, will intern under the United States Department of Energy. (Michael Mercier/UAH).

A University of Alabama in Huntsville doctoral student in aerospace engineering is heading to Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico this fall.

Andrew Walsten, a native of Mulvane, Kan., will intern under the United States Department of Energy Office of Science Graduate Student Research program. He’s one of 80 graduate students representing 17 states who were selected and will travel to Sandia in October.

How he earned the internship

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Research to propel microsatellites and CubeSats with ionized plasma from a micro-electrical engine will take Andrew Walston to New Mexico. (Sandia National Labs via Facebook)

Walston’s sesearch to propel microsatellites and CubeSats with ionized plasma from a micro-electrical engine is what caught the eyes of Sandia National Labs.

The SCGSR program provides opportunities for graduate students to conduct part of their graduate thesis research at a DOE laboratory or facility, in collaboration with a DOE laboratory scientist. SCGSR research projects are expected to advance the graduate awardee’s overall doctoral thesis while providing access to the expertise, resources and capabilities available at the DOE laboratories or facilities.

The program provides supplemental awards for graduate students to spend three to 12 consecutive months onsite at a DOE national laboratory or facility conducting graduate thesis research in a priority research area, side by side with a DOE laboratory scientist. The award provides support for inbound and outbound travel to the laboratory, and a monthly stipend of up to $3,000 for general living expenses.

“There are a lot of different types of electric propulsion, but I am specifically looking at a Hall thruster design. Hall thrusters are a mature technology that have been flown in space before. They are an annular device and you can find a bunch of images for them online.”

UAH doctoral student Andrew Walston

The engine’s propellant is fed in at the base of the annular chamber where the anode is also located. Electrons are emitted from an external cathode that is outside of the chamber. A potential difference develops between the cathode and anode which results in an electric field and accelerates the electrons towards the anode. But the electrons encounter a radial magnetic field at the channel entrance and start spiraling around the annulus in what is known as a Hall current.

How Walston came to Hunstville

Walsten’s UAH advisor Dr. Gabe Xu coaxed him to Huntsville. (Jacob Blankenship / Hville Blast)

How does a student from Kansas end up in Huntsville? Well, Walston says it was the recruiting efforts of UAH advisor Dr. Gabe Xu, an associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering.

“I ended up at UAH because when I graduated from Kansas State University, I was interested in working on electric propulsion for grad school,” Walsten says. “I applied to a bunch of schools that were doing electric propulsion research and got an offer from Dr. Xu that I accepted.”

At UAH, Dr. Xu says Walsten has been doing experimental work on low-temperature plasma since he started in 2018 and has published two journal papers and three conference papers so far.

“He first started working on an Army project on diode pumped rare gas lasers. He learned the research very quickly and gave his first conference presentation that very first year, a very rare event.”

UAH advisor Dr. Gabe Xu

At Sandia, Walsten will be mentored by physicist Dr. Brian Bentz, and the pair will use laser-collisional induced fluorescence to map the engine’s plasma distribution and compare it to the magnetic fields to better understand the plasma’s behavior and how it affects the performance of the thruster.

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Michael Seale
Michael Seale
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