Chinese scientists experiment with ethylene and coal power for hypersonic travel

The development could put China at the forefront of the technology.
Loukia Papadopoulos
China is one step closer to achieving low cost hypersonic travel.

~UserGI15994093/iStock 

Chinese researchers expect to significantly reduce the costs of commercial hypersonic travel with a novel engine using a combination of ethylene and coal powder, according to an article published by the South China Morning Post (SCMP)on Tuesday.

In tests conducted, a prototype using the affordable and efficient mixture produced shocks traveling at more than 2km (1.24 miles) per second, or six times the speed of sound, the scientists claimed in a new paper published in the China Ordnance Society’s peer-reviewed Acta Armamentarii journal on September.

A unique advantage

“Coal powder’s high energy density, safety, and low price give it a unique advantage when used as an engine fuel,” professor Weng Chunsheng at Nanjing University of Science and Technology’s national key laboratory of transient physics who leads the research team told SCMP.

Weng and his colleagues are in the process of engineering detonation engine technology for China’s hypersonic program to achieve long-range flight at Mach 7.

The new engine is expected to achieve at least a 20 percent higher fuel efficiency than modern jet engines. It does this by using extremely fast detonations that can convert more chemical energy into kinetic force.

Weng and his team got the idea to use coal powder as an engine fuel from mine explosions. But putting the concept into practice was easier said than done. “Ignition remains a major challenge,” Weng further said. This is where ethylene comes into play.

The chemical makes the ignition of a coal-powered detonation engine much easier as it ignites more efficiently than coal particles, helping to set off a chain of detonations.

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Weng’s team has already tested the coal-ethylene fuel mix in the complicated conditions that could arise during a flight and found the engine was able to start in almost every case and even produce rapid shock waves.

China’s government has made significant investments in coal mining and combustion research, and Weng and his team have been at the forefront of these developments.

Previous studies

In May of 2022, Weng’s team published a paper that reported on constructing and testing a prototype detonation engine capable of using either hydrogen or coal powder as fuel.

Other nations such as the US and India have also dabbled with the technology seeking to take it to real-world applications. So far, a mix of hydrogen and carbon-based liquid fuel has been considered the leading candidate for hypersonic travel.

However, the very low temperatures needed to store liquid hydrogen and the fact that most liquid carbon fuels produce insufficient thrust for high-speed flight have delayed seeing the projects go from laboratory to life.

Could Weng’s team have found the most ideal mix to make this technology viable? Current trials seem promising. If they continue to prove fruitful, China may become a leader in commercial hypersonic travel, which is something to get excited about.

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