The winner of the Three-Minute Thesis (3MT) competition, Jonathan Walker, is the first person to tell you his doctoral dissertation - "Electrical Facility Effects on Hall Effect Thruster Operation" - qualifies as "rocket science" in every sense of the phrase.
And it took him five years of painstaking research to frame it.
So the first thing Walker did when he entered the 3MT competition this September was to tweak the title. "Leaving Ancient Rocket Engines Behind" was the name of the talk he gave on November 18, the final leg of the competition. The substance of his thesis was likewise boiled down to a veritable haiku.
"It would not be in anyone's interests for me to give a nitty gritty technically detailed talk," he said.
"And giving me a three-minute limit completely forced me to look at my thesis and pull out those things that will have the most impact."
That approach -- and his obvious passion for the subject -- did the trick for Walker, who took home the top prize, a $2,000 travel grant. Joining Walker at the medal stand last week were fellow GT grad students Marian Hettiaratchi and Pamela Grothe, the second and third-place winners, respectively.
Inaugurated at the University of Queensland in Australia, the competition challenges Ph.D. students to use just three minutes to explain their dissertations such that someone with no knowledge of the subject would understand. This is the first year that the 3MT competition has come to Georgia Tech.
At its core, Walker's dissertation focuses on electrical propulsion as an alternative to chemical fuels for the future of deep space travel. The latter technology he dubs "ancient rocket engines."
"In chemical rocket engines, the energy and the hot gas needed to make thrust come from the same source - the fuel. The problem with rocket fuel is you can only cram so much in before it wants to explode on you... Plus, the deeper you want to go into space, the more rocket fuel you need to get you there. And the more rocket fuel you carry, the more weight you have to carry and you need more rocket fuel to carry it...It becomes an impossible situation..."
"In an electric rocket engine we're able to separate the source of the hot gas from the energy source and in doing so we can create a very fuel efficient rocket engine. So, for instance, if we have an electric engine rocket going to the moon, we can carry up to 3.5-times more cargo than one with a chemical rocket engine...."
"So, we've had a great deal of success with electric engines, but we've also had some unpredicted behavior with Hall Effect Thrusters when they get into space...what we're finding from my dissertation research is that the great steel chambers that we test these rocket engines in actually force the Hall Effect Thrusters to operate in a way they wouldn't operate if they were in space. The hope is that if we can identify what's causing this unpredicted behavior, we can prevent it...and push our rocket technology closer to deep space travel."
Find out more about Walker's dissertation thesis.