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Kysen Palmer

Kysen Palmer

Education on the Fly… Wheel

Engineering graduate kicks his studies into high speed on his way to Cambridge for doctoral degree

By Tara Roberts

When classes started in August, Kysen Palmer figured he had two semesters left to finish his master’s in mechanical engineering at the University of Idaho before heading into the workforce at a research laboratory.

But instead, he’s graduating early, selling his car and furniture and heading to England to earn his doctoral degree at the University of Cambridge.

Palmer came to Idaho from Union, Ore., as an undergraduate. He chose the university because he liked the College of Engineering’s projects and its relatively small size.

“I felt that it would be beneficial for me to know the professors I’d be working with and to get a more personal education,” he says.

He dove into research as an undergrad, helping resurrect the Micro Baja remote-controlled car project and working with the NASA-sponsored AVIATR project, which proposes sending a nuclear-powered airplane to study Saturn’s moon Titan, for his senior capstone.

He decided to stay at the university to earn his master’s degree after graduating in 2011. Part of his motivation was the College of Engineering’s emphasis on training graduate students to mentor undergrads, as well as encouraging graduate students to collaborate on their research.

“I wanted to be part of helping students as they came up through the college, and also make a point of contributing to the department that had helped me as an undergrad,” Palmer says.

Palmer worked on a diverse set of projects as a graduate student, advising seniors designing an improved system for sorting bullets and casings for local ammunitions manufacturer ATK, building a robotic drum set and continuing work with the Micro Baja car. 

His main research has been with a U-Idaho team studying flywheel energy storage for NASA. Flywheels spin faster when energy, usually in the form of electricity, is pumped into them, storing the energy in the form of rotation. The energy can be extracted mechanically and turned back into electricity when needed.

The U-Idaho team examines suspending flywheels using magnetic bearings, which cut the friction caused by traditional bearings by levitating the wheel. Their goals include developing a wheel that uses passive magnetic bearings, which require extremely low temperatures, but don’t require a power source like active magnetic bearings.

Palmer’s recent work has been making mathematical models of the flywheel’s movements, but he’s also examined manufacturing high-temperature superconductors, which act as good passive magnetic bearings when cooled in the presence of a magnetic field. That research translated into an internship this past summer at The Boeing Company’s Advanced Physics Lab, sponsored by NASA’s Idaho Space Grant Consortium. 

In September, two researchers he’d worked with at Boeing called with an unexpected question: Was he interested in going to Cambridge?

Boeing and Cambridge have a joint partnership studying high-temperature superconductors, and Palmer was a perfect fit for the program. The researchers recommended Palmer for the program, and Cambridge fast-tracked his application – choosing him rather than students from schools like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology or the California Institute of Technology.

But the offer stood only as long as he could start in January. Palmer agreed, scrambling to sort out his final months at U-Idaho before making the big move. In addition to moving up graduation, he moved up his wedding – he and now-wife, Megan Feller, had just gotten engaged and needed to be married before travelling.
Palmer is excited to continue and expand his research experience at Cambridge.

“One of the cool things is a lot of the research will be with high-speed machines, and the applications there are pretty extensive,” he says.

After he completes his doctoral degree, Palmer is considering staying overseas to delve into a possible use for high-speed magnetic bearings, an iconic industry in western Europe: windmills.