Je Ir Ryu holds up the palm of his hand in his recently occupied NYU Abu Dhabi office, points at it and says: “the entire energy conversion rate of the United States could be achieved in a space this big if we could just figure it out.”
He’s talking about harnessing the incredible power of detonation –in engineering terms it is called supersonic flame propagation and could be the next generation of rocket propulsion systems.
This is a realm of physical phenomena that is still academically unwieldy, difficult to control, but one that Ryu and his research group are working on solving.
“If we understood the phenomenon, it would create a totally different world of physics,” he said.
Put simply, Ryu is trying to understand and harness the energy output created from shockwaves emitted from breaking the sound barrier. This is no easy task, as the chaotic nature of the phenomenon makes controlling it in a contained system problematic.
However, the potential of this breakthrough would not only change rocket systems, but also the way we harness energy. Traditional rocket and combustion energy systems require a high degree of pressurization, which is typically done in compressors. This allows for energy to be released but compressors are massive and require energy to pressurize fuel.
In supersonic flame propagation, the shockwaves already create the highly pressurized environment needed for energy output by virtue of the physical phenomenon of breaking the sound barrier. This would completely negate the need for compressors, which are large and cumbersome, and would create a system that is significantly more energy- and space-efficient.
Through computational simulation that measures the physics of rockets and propulsion systems, Ryu is researching various methods of optimizing engineering mechanics involved in rockets and engines, including supersonic phenomena but also more applicable systems such as optimizing nuclear energy in rockets and as an energy source.
Ryu, who was recently hired as an assistant professor of mechanical engineering, researches a number of propulsion systems, including the making of propulsion systems, the most common method used for rockets. Through computational techniques he is looking at understanding the physical phenomenon to better understand propulsion systems and further optimize that work.
An example is space rocket propulsion. By exploring different energy systems, mainly nuclear and combustion, he looks to simulate the operation of a space rocket as it journeys to planets.
“You can do this all experimentally, you can build these components and change the variables. But it’s very expensive if something goes wrong,” he said.
Through his calculations and simulation, different variables in any given propulsion system – from rockets to car engines – can be manipulated to illustrate the best possible builds and quantities when it comes to building a propulsion system.
It can also be an extremely cost-saving and efficient way to know why things go wrong.
“Failure is a good thing in engineering research. If I failed in this case, that means I can understand more about the systems,” he said.
Before joining NYUAD, Ryu was a postdoctoral fellow at the US Army Research Laboratory and Argonne National Laboratory. He also works with Hyundai in South Korea to begin uncovering the mysteries of how to harness the incredible potential of quantum computers to better understand physical properties.
Today his work continues with Hyundai and the US Armybut he is also hoping that his research will aid in the UAE’s space ambitions – a childhood dream of his.
“It’s silly, and it’s common. But when I was a kid, I watched Apollo 13 and I was completely fascinated by the space engineers. So this led me down this path. It's special to know that my research can contribute to nations space ambitions, big companies' technology breakthroughs, and also fulfill a childhood dream of mine.”