Developed by engineers at the University of Central Florida (UCF) and Naval Research Laboratory, the chamber harnesses the power of an oblique detonation wave, which does not spin in the same way as rotating detonation waves. The system, known as HyperREACT (hypersonic high-enthalpy reaction), uses a chamber with a 30-degree angle ramp near the propellent mixing chamber that stabilises the oblique detonation wave and creates a shock wave for propulsion. While still in its very early stages, the technology could one day power aircraft and spacecraft at speeds up to Mach 17, around 21,000 km/h.
"There is an intensifying international effort to develop robust propulsion systems for hypersonic and supersonic flight that would allow flight through our atmosphere at very high speeds and also allow efficient entry and exit from planetary atmospheres," said study co-author Kareem Ahmed, an associate professor in UCF's Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering.
"The discovery of stabilising a detonation - the most powerful form of intense reaction and energy release - has the potential to revolutionise hypersonic propulsion and energy systems."
Detonation propulsion is nothing new, but decades of research have failed to exert any control over the process or even create detonations lasting beyond milliseconds, making the phenomena difficult to study. During testing, the team used HyperREACT to sustain the duration of a detonation wave for three seconds, a major leap forward, but a long way from what would be required for a functional propulsion system. The work is published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
"This is the first time a detonation has been shown to be stabilised experimentally," Ahmed continued. "We are finally able to hold the detonation in space in oblique detonation form. It's almost like freezing an intense explosion in physical space."