Boron-powered Chinese missile will work in the air and underwater

Boron as rocket fuel has been a tough nut to crack.
Ameya Paleja
3D rendering of a torpedo
3D rendering of a torpedo

iStock/AlexLMX 

Rocket scientists in China are working to develop a boron-powered supersonic missile that can fly like a commercial airliner and then swim in the water to act as a torpedo, South China Morning Post (SCMP) reported. The range and speed of the missile are expected to be much larger than any torpedo developed so far.

Boron is a highly reactive light element that reacts equally well with water as it does with air to release vast amounts of heat. The U.S. Air Force experimented with boron in the 1950s to increase the power of its supersonic bombers. However, the project was shelved since ignited boron is hard to control and also forms a layer of debris that impacts rocket performance.

However, the race for hypersonic weapons, missiles that can travel at speeds greater than Mach 5, has reignited the interest in boron as a fuel. China has experimented with solid fuel that contains boron nanoparticles for its air-breathing scramjet engines, SCMP said in its report. Even the U.S. Navy has successfully experimented with boron nitride nanotubes in its hypersonic weapons.

Now a team of Chinese researchers is also working on developing supersonic weapons using the same fuel.

China's boron-powered missile

According to the SCMP report, a team from the National University of Defence Technology in Changsha, Hunan Province unveiled a blueprint for the supersonic missile in a peer-reviewed journal of Solid Rocket Technology.

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As per the publication, the missile is 16-4 feet (5 m) tall and can cruise at 2.5 Mach when at an altitude of 32,800 feet (10,000 m). This is similar to the altitude at which a commercial airliner flies. After traveling for a distance of 124 miles (200 km), the missile will dive and skim over the waves for up to 12 miles (20 km).

Once the target is within a range of six miles (10 km), the missile will go into torpedo mode and travel underwater at the speed of 200 knots (100 m per second) thanks to its ability of supercavitation - making a giant air bubble around it in the water, which reduces drag and does not slow down the rocket.

The researchers also claim that the missile will be capable of changing its course or crash-diving to up to 330 feet (100 m) in order to evade underwater defenses yet not lose momentum. The researchers are confident that no ship defense system before could handle such a quick attack using two media.

Is it practical though?

Conventionally, boron-powered missiles are meant to be used only in the air. The researchers have made some design changes, such as adjustable inlets and exhaust nozzles aimed at allowing the fuel to burn in either environment effectively.

The typical fuel composition of boron-powered missiles contains up to 30 percent of this light metal with other chemicals used to control its ignition occupying the bulk of the weight. The research team has doubled the boron concentration to produce greater thrust in the water.

To tide over the potential problems this may cause, the researchers plan to make modifications to the boron particles and improve the manufacturing process. While these are achievable feats, the bottleneck in the scaling up of the method would be the availability of boron itself.

China imports half of its boron ores, most coming from the U.S., so it would be hard to see it through if the Asian nation was planning to weaponize it, the SCMP said in its report.

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