A “revolutionary” hypersonic jet capable of traveling 16 times the speed of sound has completed tests conducted by the Institute of Mechanics at the Chinese Academy of Sciences. In theory, the results show an engine capable of traveling to any location around the globe within two hours.
Named the Soramjet Engine (Standing Oblique Detonation Ramjet Engine), the proposed engine would be capable of powering traditional airplanes, as well as trans-atmospheric flights. These trans-atmospheric flights would allow horizontal takeoff from a runway and accelerate to Earth’s orbit, allowing for re-entry and landing at an airport.
This type of jet could potentially provide unprecedented fuel efficiency and propel commercial flights to hypersonic speeds, which is five times the speed of sound.
The engine’s design seems very simplistic, consisting of three major components with no moving parts; a single-stage air inlet, hydrogen fuel injector, and combustion chamber. The mouth of the combustion chamber opens to the upper end of the air inlet.
The drawings published in the Chinese Journal of Aeronautics show that the engine utilizes shock waves generated by the high-speed winds to react with the hydrogen fuel, delivering an explosion propelling the jet forward. During the test, as the engines fired up, the combustion chamber’s mouth started to glow like a futuristic space ship, according to the team’s footage.
NASA tested iterations of hypersonic jet engines in the 1960s and 1970s named Scramjets but ultimately decided to shift development to private organizations after various faults during operation. Once the scramjet’s development and research moved to the private sector, there were still numerous setbacks and issues.
Engineer Richard Morrison developed the idea for utilizing shockwaves as a lighter to detonate fuel in a 1980 paper. The Chinese research team found Morrison’s proposal to be the most significant effort at overcoming the scramjet’s woes. Extensive redesign and development of a special alloy that could withstand the engine’s pressure and temperature allowed the team to produce a successful test.
They found that the faster the engine flew, the more efficient it became when burning the hydrogen fuel. Turning the shock waves into a supporting component that they could sustain and stabilize ultimately beat the Scramjet model in every category.
While this breakthrough is promising, industry experts believe commercial application and useability may still be a generation away.