GT-AE Grad Student Tom Neuman Takes Top Award in NASA Challenge

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An airplane developed by Tom Neuman, MSAE '15, has won top honors in the graduate division of NASA's 2014-15 University Design Challenge: All-electric Aviation Vehicle competition.

The designs for The Vapor, Neuman's 3450-pound, hydrogen cell-powered, four-seat airplane will be reviewed again, in October, when the recent ASDL grad has been invited to present it before experts at NASA's Langley Center.

"It's a competitive design, so it's already generated some interest from employers," said the 24-year-old Marietta native, who completed co-ops at Boeing, Sikorsky, and Rolls Royce while a student GT-AE.

"It's really been quite exciting."

Neuman was the only one-person team to take on the challenge, which tasked student engineers to design a four-seat vehicle that could carry at least 400 pounds of extra cargo, fly at least 575 miles during a single flight, cruise at a speed of at least 150 miles-per-hour, and be able to take off in less than 3,000 feet under normal conditions.

And it would have to be competitive with standard piston-engine airplanes that burn aviation fuel by 2020.

"But those were just the minimal standards," said Neuman.

"The real goal was to be able to travel 1000 miles at a speed of 190 miles-per-hour, with a payload of 800 pounds. And the game wasn't one of pure number analysis either. They wanted to see a plane that could compete in today's market, with components that are available now to manufacture it."

At an estimated production cost of around $547,500, the Vapor was competitive with the Cirrus SR-22, one of the most popular single-engine gas-powered planes on the market. Not only did it meet the distance and payload demands, Neuman's plane was also shown to be 16 decibels quieter and to consume 3.8 times less fuel than the SR-22.

"We may not have hydrogen refueling stations everywhere yet, but there are economically feasible ways to develop hydrogen on site. It can be derived from natural gas, or biomass," he said.

"And its only emission is water vapor."

Perhaps the most challenging aspect of the design process the development of a validation tool that would benchmark the Vapor's performance. Up until a few years ago, most electric or fuel-cell-powered planes were too small and too slow to meet the NASA specs.

"I had to analyze large electric powered planes because that's what I'm designing," he said. "Now there are a few larger electric airplanes in production that I can use to validate Vapor. The numbers I got were aligned with reality."


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