Say you’re a manufacturer in Columbus that needs to deliver a planeload of cargo to China… in about 90 minutes. You might be out of luck now, but research currently being conducted at several Ohio universities aims to make hypersonic air travel a possibility by the year 2035.
The Hypersonic Vehicle Technology Development Program, led by the Air Force Research Laboratories (AFRL) at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, is collaborating with researchers at both The Ohio State University and the University of Cincinnati to help lay the groundwork for building an aircraft capable of speeds up to and beyond Mach 7 (seven times the speed of sound). Along the way, this research is helping to develop new technologies that can be applied to a variety of industries.
Although current rocket-propelled vehicles used for space travel can fly at speeds up to Mach 23, the metal and other materials used to build those ships can be used only once. Currently, the fastest reusable aircraft in operation, which can both take off and land on a runway, travels at Mach 4 speed.
In order to make a hypersonic aircraft a reality, the AFRL needs to develop materials and technologies that currently don’t exist. They’re doing this with the help of collaborative research centers at a number of universities nationwide, each focusing on individual parts and pieces of the overall project. One of these companion centers is the AFRL - University Collaborative Center in Structural Sciences (CCSS) located at The Ohio State University, under the direction of Dr. Jack McNamara.
The CCSS at Ohio State will collaborate with the AFRL for the next five to seven years, with the goal to “provide analysis methods to reasonably assess the state of a ‘representative’ hypersonic (Mach 5-7) structural configuration.” Simply put, researchers in the Multiphysics Interactions Research Group (MIRG) at OSU will develop the technology needed to test structures and components intended for use on a hypersonic aircraft.
According to Dr. McNamara, “the CCSS is part of a broader hypersonics focus at OSU.” He and five other OSU faculty members are also conducting hypersonics research funded by the Air Force on multi-physics simulation, fluid-structure interaction, fluid dynamics, and combustion. The CCSS at OSU will also offer grants to 10-20 students who, alongside faculty members, will conduct research projects pertaining to smaller components of the larger hypersonics program.
The University of Cincinnati also plays a role in the project through research currently happening in its Structural Dynamics Research Laboratory (SDRL). The goal is to utilize current technology at the UC-SDRL to develop new validation methods that the AFRL can use to compare tests with model predictions of various small components and structures in order to evaluate structural integrity before actually building the final structure. As a side bonus, the research taking place within the SDRL assists students to prepare for other industries that require similar validation based component testing, such as automotive and aerospace.
Every aircraft experiences pressure from at least five “loads” (environmental stresses): structurally, acoustically, thermally, the fluid flow, and the combined effect of them all. These loads require analysis to determine how they interact with one another and how they react individually. In order to accurately predict material failure points based on these loads, current research is focused on the area of verification and validation (V&V) of computational models for materials, structures and components.
Dr. Randall Allemang, a senior collaborator hired by the U.S. Air Force to provide advice to the internal researchers at the AFRL, has been utilizing his expertise in the dynamic testing of structures and in particular, the testing of aircraft structures, to assist the program for the past five years.
The AFRL plans to test the V&V models developed through Allemang’s work with the UC-SDRL this summer. Allemang describes his work as “developing the methods used to take a very large amount of analysis predictions and a very large amount of associated measured data and come up with a way to say that the model safely predicts what will happen, and that the model is not overly conservative. If the model is overly conservative, it is less likely to be able to fly in the extreme conditions of Mach 7.”
As the universities and Air Force continue along their current research path, they’ll gradually create and analyze the new materials and technologies needed to build a hypersonic vehicle. Both McNamara and Allemang believe their research will impact numerous technologies, and could have a significant impact on the future of air travel in general.
But don’t rush out to book your 60-minute flight from Ohio to Hawaii just yet! Even by 2035, the research will most likely have created only the materials and technology necessary to start building a Mach 7 vehicle. And once it’s finished, it most likely will be used for military, rather than commercial, applications.