Zimbabwean scientist Dr. Phylis Makurunje is leading a team at Bangor University Nuclear Futures Institute in Wales to develop a nuclear system for powering rockets. The technology aims to significantly reduce travel time to Mars, potentially cutting it from nine months to four to six months. The team is also working on nuclear fuel cells, the size of poppy seeds, to provide energy for sustaining life on the Moon, supporting NASA’s goal of establishing a lunar outpost by 2030.
The university intends to test the nuclear fuel in the coming months. The microgenerators developed for the Moon could also have applications on Earth, such as providing electricity in disaster-stricken areas.
Dr. Makuranje, a graduate of the National University of Science and Technology (NUST), stated that the new technology has the potential to reduce the travel time to Mars by almost 50%. She told BBC News:
It is very powerful – it gives very high thrust, the push it gives to the rocket. This is very important because it enables rockets to reach the farthest planets.
With nuclear thermal propulsion – you’re looking at about four to six months getting to Mars. The current duration is nine months plus.
Dr. Makuranje joined the Nuclear Futures Institute in mid-2020 contributing her extensive expertise in ceramic materials manufacturing. She obtained her PhD from the University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa, in 2020, focusing on ceramics for aerospace applications. Prior to that, she completed a Masters in Materials Engineering and a Bachelors in Chemical Engineering at the University of the Witwatersrand and NUST, respectively. She humorously refers to herself as the “odd girl who made wire cars.” She said in a previous interview:
A lot of people around me took me so seriously that parents in my neighbourhood would come to my mother to ask for me to make wire cars for their kids.
One day, I saw an older boy who had made a helicopter which rolled on wheels, and I said to myself, ‘I want to make a helicopter too’. My career path since then did not take a straight line; I startlingly leaped back into my dream when I got the opportunity to study aerospace materials at the University of the Witwatersrand.
She is actively involved in various space-related organizations and committees, working to advance Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) and space education in rural Africa. Dr. Makurunje’s innovative work has earned her recognition, including a Space Generation Leadership award from the Space Generation Advisory Council (SGAC). Her research and contributions contribute to the advancement of space technology and energy solutions.