Sci-Fi Era Rocket Engines Work, but Questions Remain

Imagine this – in an orbit around Mars, spaceship engines ignite. Rather than the typical roaring core of flames, instead small explosions spin around the inner edge of the engine. They are rotating so fast that they blur into a blue ring of flame.

Researchers have built this type of engine in laboratories across the world (if in smaller scale), but do not understand this engine well enough to use it as spaceship propulsion  yet.

Called rotating detonation engines, or RDEs, these are not your typical rocket engine. Most rocket engines combust the propellant through deflagration – burning all the fuel at a continuous rate until it is gone. Detonation engines work more like bombs. They ignite the propellants all at once in one powerful explosion. The benefit is that the energy is released in a short time. Researchers believe that this trait can lead to powerful engines that are small in volume.

The key idea of the rotating detonation engine is that the detonation is a wave. In most detonations, waves go in all directions. The concussive waves of an explosion are a good example. However in a RDE, the waves go around an annular chamber (in a circle), re-igniting as they get fresh propellant. [To get a better idea of how they work, check out this Russian video, starting at 1:10 seconds. – You can see how a single wave moves in a circle around the front of the engine. The later part of the video also shows the engine as if you are looking toward the exhaust, as imagine in the first paragraph.] The waves spin around the inner diameter of the engine, moving so fast that they look like a continuous flame.

The clip, though modeled, is based upon observations in a laboratory. In a recent survey published in the AIAA Journal of Power and Propulsion, Dr. Lu and Dr. Braun explored the rotating detonation engines developed and tested within the last decade. Through this survey, they revealed the challenges of building and testing these engines.

The authors noted that, while nine engines have been tested between 2006 and 2012, none has lasted for more than a few seconds. Three of the engines worked for an amount of time measured in milliseconds. If nine different engines had been constructed and successfully tested (if only for a short time), why hasn’t a more enduring engine been created? Simply, the physics behind RDEs is not well understood, so the typical engineering methods for design are replaced by a method approximating educated trial-and-error.

There is not yet any “standard” RDE hardware. Among the nine engines, six different ignition sources were constructed. These sources were intended to start a single wave speeding around the circular engine. The most reliable, with a reported repeatability of 95%, was also the most complex. It used three different pieces of hardware to achieve the reported rate. One system was not enough to guarantee success. The added complexity stems from uncertainty about how the waves begin and sustain themselves.

Even if successfully started, the waves have strange characteristics that make long-duration testing difficult. For example, researchers have observed the waves changing direction. They switch from running clockwise to running counterclockwise, or vice versa. The reason for this behavior is not well understood. Even if the waves do not unexpectedly about-face, maintaining them is difficult. Fuel injectors must give the waves enough fuel to sustain themselves, but at the right moment. The goal is not to become a deflagration engine, which simply burns the propellant in one continuous burn. Separate waves require specialized ignitors that support their travel around the engine. Each of the nine engines used a slightly different method to make this work.

It’s possible that one of these engine systems had the best mixture of ignition sources and ignitors required to sustain the waves of an a RDE. Yet, none of them ran for more than 2 seconds. It is likely that this is due, at least in part, to the extreme heat conditions in a rotating detonation engine. The authors experienced this difficulty first-hand. Their engine used a composite material that could withstand temperatures of 1800 degrees Celsius. It survived short duration tests of less than 0.5 seconds; further testing caused damage.

Why can’t engineers select the proper materials and hardware for testing? RDE models are not entirely accurate. The engines do not follow the typical thermodynamic cycle that deflagration engine designers use. The typical assumptions don’t apply. The Brayton thermodynamic cycle, used for analysis of deflagration engines, assumes constant pressure. Waves are inconstant. They move around the engine, causing rapid changes in pressure and velocity. Researchers have developed theories to estimate how many waves should be present and created new methods to describe the thermodynamic cycle. But the theoretical models do not yet seem developed enough to design a successful RDE using only models.

It may take some development time before we can use these engines to propel ourselves to distant worlds.