Kyle Flanagan

Year of Graduation: 

“We are engaging a whole community that is backing a science experiment.”

Growing up in Maine, Kyle Flanagan ’07 loved dinosaurs and space. “I had an early interest in the history of the universe, the natural world, all the different plant and animal species,” he remembers.

He was also really good at math. In his prep year at Exeter, he gravitated toward physics as “a way to apply math to the world in very tangible ways.” On the football field, Flanagan saw the role physics played in the “parabolic arc” of the ball, and in what happened when athletes collided on the turf.

Now, he channels his curiosity and scientific vision into Prime Lightworks, the space technology company he founded in 2015. Its mission: to make aerospace fully renewable. Currently in development is a microwave propulsion system that would enable space-craft and satellites to operate in space using renewable power, without fossil fuel or other mass propellant. This year, Forbes magazine included Flanagan on its list of 30 Under 30 in Science.

Fresh out of Harvard in 2013, Flanagan scored a job as an engineer at Elon Musk’s aerospace company, SpaceX. Around that time, he read about the successful test of a device called a radio frequency (RF) resonant cavity thruster at NASA’s Eagleworks Advanced Propulsion Laboratory. The device — otherwise known as an EmDrive — had long existed only as a theory: that elec-tromagnetic waves known as microwaves could, when channeled through a tapered chamber, generate enough thrust to propel a spacecraft. Controversy swirled around the so-called Impossible Drive. For one thing, it appears to violate Isaac Newton’s third law of motion. “From a purely Newtonian standpoint, this wouldn’t work,” Flanagan says, without an equal and opposite thrust reaction — i.e., no propellant being pushed out the back of the drive. “Our theory involves Einstein’s general relativity, relating electromagnetic energy to gravity.”

The NASA team’s claim to have generated a small amount of thrust intrigued Flanagan. “Space is very inefficient and wasteful,” he says. “Once a satellite runs out of fuel, it’s just dead weight. It orbits in space indefinitely, posing a collision risk, or it burns up in the atmosphere.”

Soon after the NASA test, Flanagan left SpaceX and founded Prime Lightworks. After going through Y Combinator, a prestigious Silicon Valley startup accelerator, the company raised more than $1.8 million in seed funding. It’s since benefited from other accelerator programs and an ongoing relationship with Greentown Labs, a cleantech startup incubator in Massachusetts.

Flanagan and Peter Dohm, his co-founder and VP of engineering, are testing a prototype of their RF resonant cavity thruster at the company’s Los Angeles, California, headquarters and Greentown Labs. Similar to a solar sail, a spacecraft with reflective sails that uses light from the sun as momentum, their device would use a solar panel to produce microwave energy feeding an electromagnetic cavity resonator. As the microwaves bounce around inside the closed cavity, Flanagan and Dohm run “a tracking generator and a network analyzer as a digital electronics subsystem that powers a radio amplifier,” Flanagan explains. “We have a feedback loop that listens to the cavity resonance frequency and retunes ... kind of like a musical instrument.”        

Just as a violinist shifts her fingers on the strings to find the right note, the system aims to hit on the frequency that will produce a high-amplitude electromagnetic wave on resonance. “The theory is that the louder we can make that note, the more thrust we’ll produce,” Flanagan says. 

To continue testing and work toward making the technology commercially viable, Prime Lightworks is running a crowdfunding campaign through StartEngine, an equity crowdfunding site. “We think about it a lot — the democratization of space, the democratization of equity,” Flanagan says. “We are engaging a whole community that is backing a science experiment.”  

— Sarah Pruitt '95

Editor's note: This article first appeared in the fall 2020 issue of The Exeter Bulletin.