Developing the Blueprint for a Scramjet

Although researchers are keen to develop a successful scramjet engine, designing and testing this type of engine has proved difficult. For example, the WaveRider scramjet test vehicle, built by the engineering powerhouses of DARPA, Boeing and Pratt and Whitney Rocketdyne, only had two successful flights of four. Scramspace also built and unsuccessfully tested a flight vehicle. Developing a successful design for a scramjet has not been a simple task, but, through patient research among experts on varying aspects of scramjet technology, a blueprint for a the engine is slowly taking shape.

Researchers are tackling varying design aspects of the scramjet engine, refining the physics and theorizing how components would work most effectively. In the Sep-Oct 2014 issue of the AIAA Journal of Propulsion and Power, at least three articles summarized research directly related to scramjet engine development. While each article addressed only a small aspect of component design, like the best width of cavities to increase fuel-air mixing (for more effective combustion), central design difficulties are being addressed. One of the most pressing issues with scramjets is having successful combustion at supersonic speeds. Two of the articles address this issue.

Korean researchers explored the issue of starting and sustaining combustion. The team created a two dimensional model for testing different lengths of combustor area. By varying the length of the combustor, the researchers could determine which configuration allowed ignition and sustained combustion. In four of seven tests, their “medium” length combustion area had supersonic combustion. The medium length allowed the fuel to atomize (small droplets) along the length of the combustion, so that the fuel was ignited successfully when it reached the flame. This short technical paper helped lay the foundation for designing a successful combustor length.

Cavities are another design idea intended to enable combustion at supersonic speeds. Previous work has established that cavities (like the semi-circular holes on golf balls) increase fuel-air mixing by making the air around them more turbulent. The turbulent air does not stream out of the engine as fast, allowing it to swirl around and mix with the fuel more thoroughly before reaching the flame (ignitor). A joint team of Korean and Indian scientists published their research on how the width of these cavities can increase or decrease the amount of turbulence just downstream of the cavity. Now future designers can arrange the width of cavities so that there is successful fuel-air mixing and therefore combustion.

While researchers are focused on determining how to have successful combustion at supersonic air speeds, other physics problems remain to be solved.  For example, how do they design an inlet that takes in air at hypersonic (above Mach 5) speeds? At these speeds, shocks play a vital role in aerodynamics – the assumptions of how air works at subsonic speeds do not apply. Shock waves and expansion fans, physical phenomena at high speeds, drastically alter the pressures and temperatures at the inlet. A Chinese team looked more carefully at the physical interaction of these phenomena, attempting to refine a theory developed in 1975, which they believed did not take into account the interference from expansion waves at the “shoulder” of the inlet. Further refining the community knowledge of the physical interactions at hypersonic inlets will eventually aid in the design of such inlets.

While scramjet testing in flight conditions (outside of the laboratory) can be expensive and has a historically low probability of success, theoretical refinements in component design are building a blueprint for scramjet designers to follow in designing the next generation vehicle.

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