China: New hypersonic generator 'capable' of powering future weapons

"If this technology finds an application in power generation, we may owe the hypersonic weapons a big 'thank you,'" says a researcher.
Baba Tamim
Representational image: The US-Israeli Tactical High Energy Laser (THEL).
Representational image: The US-Israeli Tactical High Energy Laser (THEL).

Wikimedia Commons 

A team of researchers from Beijing has created a generator "capable" of converting hot gas at hypersonic speeds into a powerful electric current.

The electricity generated can be used to power military lasers, microwave weapons, rail guns, and other pulsed energy weapons, South China Morning Post (SCMP) reported on Thursday. 

The researchers claimed that the magnetohydrodynamics (MHD) generator yielded more than ten times the power generated in previous experiments.

“The MHD generator has no rotating parts, among its numerous unique advantages,” according to the team lead Zhang Xiaoyuan and colleagues.

“It has a large capacity and high efficiency. There is no need for intermediate energy storage components,” said the researchers from the Institute of Mechanics, Chinese Academy of Sciences, in a paper.

“The energy can be directly transferred to the load without a high-power switch. And the device can start up quickly.”

The latest experiment saw the shock waves convert the inert gas into a highly conductive plasma that was loaded with hot, electrically charged particles by compressing and accelerating argon gas to Mach 14, or 14 times the speed of sound.

Using only one liter of hypersonic gas, the system produced rapid pulses of electric current of up to 212 kilowatts during the tests.

According to Xiaoyuan's team, one gigawatt of electricity may be generated from just five cubic meters (177 cubic feet) of hypersonic plasma.

Magnetohydrodynamics generator

Fast-moving ions' energy is captured by the MHD generator, a tube-shaped device, and transformed into electricity. 

The MHD generator does not contain revolving parts and does not need intermediate energy storage components, in contrast to conventional power generation techniques.

It is a straightforward, effective, and high-capacity system that might be applied to military applications, such as high-power microwave weapons.

The generator system sets off explosions that turn gas into plasma and converts the plasma's energy into high-power electricity.

"Other researchers had tried setting off dynamite to generate hypersonic shock waves for an MHD generator, wrote Xiaoyuan's team. 

"But this approach required a lot of chemical explosives and was largely abandoned because of safety concerns."

Extreme process for energy production

Turning explosive energy into electricity is not easy, according to a Beijing-based researcher not involved in Xiaoyuan's study, who spoke to SCMP on the basis of anonymity. 

"Zhang's team was able to achieve extremely high speeds and temperatures at the same time," said the researcher.

Such explosions are very challenging to manage, and the researcher suggested that society would profit from taming this extreme method of energy production.

"If this technology finds an application in power generation, we may owe the hypersonic weapons a big 'thank you,'" he said. 

Conventional combustion systems cannot produce ionized fluids quickly enough to generate high-power electricity, necessitating large facilities with numerous mechanical components and regular maintenance.

The MHD generator, on the other hand, can generate high-power electricity in a simple and compact system.

It could provide a solution to some of the most difficult challenges in developing pulsed energy weapons, claimed the researchers.

The Challenges 

The study team's proposed technique is claimed to have a lot of potentials, but it also has certain complications.

Military users of the technology might have doubts, and mobile systems for pulsed energy weapons would have to get over technical challenges, including a detonation shock device.

The explosion that generates electricity may also make a loud noise that makes the location of the weapon obvious.

Additionally, reloading fresh membranes after each shot could be challenging on the battlefield unless the task can be quickly and effectively automated.

A megawatt or more of electricity would be required by some powerful laser weapons currently being developed in order to destroy a target at a great distance.

According to reports, China is working on a high-power microwave weapon that may be used to disrupt satellites and aircraft.

The paper was first published in the peer-reviewed Chinese Journal of Theoretical and Applied Mechanics on January 19, noted SCMP.

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