Doctoral student sets sights on sustainable aviation

Posted: February 24, 2023
Aerospace engineering PhD student David Mapunda
Aerospace engineering PhD student David Mapunda

PhD student David Mapunda isn’t certain what fate has in store for him, but he feels like it’s going to be great.

Having just started his second year of graduate school, the aerospace engineer has already garnered attention and accolades for his research in sustainable aviation. In the spring of 2022, he presented at the Ohio State Forum on Aviation Sustainability and Decarbonization, which brought together nearly 50 thought leaders across industry, government and academia.

The airline industry accounts for nearly three percent of global carbon dioxide emissions, according to the World Economic Forum. Those emissions will likely stand out even more as other sectors, such as automotive, go electric.

“My current research interest is in electric air propulsion, which falls under the umbrella of advanced air mobility,” said Mapunda, a graduate research assistant at the Center for Automotive Research. Advanced air mobility is an air transport system concept that integrates new, transformational aircraft designs and flight technologies into existing and modified airspace operations.

“In terms of electric air propulsion, we're trying to see if we can put electrification on planes. How would that work? Or say if it won't work for big planes, could we do something like hybrid electric propulsions where we integrate electric machines together with existing turbine engines that planes currently have.”

Following his forum presentation, Mapunda was encouraged by his advisor, Professor Giorgio Rizzoni, to apply for funding through a grant that Ohio State’s Sustainability Institute had received from Honda. His successful application earned him $25,000 in funding, which has made an immediate impact.

“I’ve been able to focus on what interests me, rather than worrying about completing graduate associate responsibilities,” said Mapunda. “Rather than using my time to prepare for classes to teach or lab experiments, I’ve had time to actually focus on my research, something I’m passionate about and that I see myself doing in the future.”

It’s a passion that began as a teenager growing up in Tanzania with dreams of becoming a pilot and eventually morphed into an interest in aeronautical engineering. After completing his undergraduate studies in China, Mapunda came to Ohio State, a place that not only had the technological advancements he was looking for, but also opportunities for collaboration he desired. While he’s anxious for his ideas to take flight, he’s still working toward defining his research area.

“Electric air propulsion is very small part of advanced air mobility, but itself is actually very broad,” he said. “We’re looking at reducing noise, increasing efficiency and improving performance. I’m also going through multiple literature reviews to see what other people have done, what can be improved, and what I think I could contribute to.”

Mapunda’s work in sustainable energy solutions will be further supported through his involvement in the EmPOWERment NSF Research Traineeship, which kicked off this semester and continues through spring 2024. He’s also part of the team helping to organize this year’s Sustainable Aviation Forum on March 28 and the Ohio Air Mobility Symposium on March 29-30. The latter is a student-run cohort which strives to bring advanced air mobility to Ohio using collaboration across all levels of the industry and academia.

“I feel like there's a lot that is going to be gained from that event, and I just can't wait to see where everything goes,” he said.

As for where he himself will go, Mapunda isn’t 100% certain, but he knows Ohio State is helping him get there.

“I feel like Ohio State has, for the best part of my graduate school life, been very influential in helping me understand the areas that I'm supposed to go into and it has also provided me with so much opportunity. I’ve been challenged in many different ways, to think differently, and I’m challenging myself to see how far I can go with everything that I know and everything that I can do. With my position at Ohio State, I feel like I can do that.”

by Meggie Biss, College of Engineering Communications |