Innovative 'morphing' scramjet engine funded $450,000 by DoD

Under a new $450,000 DoD-funded project, researchers from the University of Central Florida have been tasked with developing a new "morphing" scramjet engine.
Christopher McFadden
Schematic of proposed "morphing" scramjet.


The U.S. Department of Defense (DoD), specifically a Naval Research Laboratory-funded project, has unveiled interesting plans for a new morphing hypersonic engine, reports the University of Central Florida (UCF). If workable, the new engine, according to the NRL, could lead to ultra-fast commercial and space travel. The research project, led by a UCF researcher, could theoretically allow air travel at Mach 6 to 17 speeds. That would be fast enough to travel coast-to-coast across the continental United States in less than 30 minutes.

Mighty morphin' hypersonic engine

Although the concept of hypersonic flight technology has existed since the 1960s, countries such as the U.S., Russia, and China are in a race to improve their systems for more efficient and sustained flight. To this end, the UCF has received a $450,000 NRL grant to develop a hypersonic engine that can optimize performance by changing its configuration mid-flight.

“Most hypersonic engines are structurally fixed due to the challenging flight environment,” says the project’s principal investigator, Kareem Ahmed, a UCF’s Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering professor. “Our research will show the performance gains from an adaptable engine configuration that would self-optimize its surfaces to maximize performance power, thrust and travel distance, which is the first of its kind for hypersonic engines," he added.

"Ahmed is a leading researcher in the field of hypersonics, achieving the first stabilized and sustained rotating detonation wave for hypersonic travel and heading a $1.5 million U.S. Department of Defense [DoD] award to develop high-performance fuels for hypersonic propulsion," explains the UCF.

This research project is built on Ahmed's previous work on "scramjet", supersonic combustion ramjet engines. The significant aspect of "scramjet" engines is their ability to burn air at supersonic speeds without reducing it to subsonic velocities, as traditional jet engines do.

Ahmed and his research team have created an aerothermodynamic model for a hypersonic, shape-shifting scramjet engine. They are currently testing the engine experimentally to evaluate its performance. Aerothermodynamics deals with the study of how gases interact at high speeds and temperatures.

“We are very happy for being selected for the program,” Ahmed says. “Our lab has been a leader and innovator in high-speed and hypersonic propulsion and this program gives our group the opportunity to contribute and make an impact," he added.

A revolutionary potential

If the UCF's research proves successful, it could profoundly impact commercial air travel. It could, for example, mean that long-distance flights that typically take many hours could be reduced to just a fraction of the time, enhancing the convenience and efficiency of air travel. Furthermore, the time saved could ripple effect on various industries, including business and tourism, making international collaborations more feasible and convenient.

Besides commercial air travel, scramjet technology also holds promise in the space industry. The high speeds achievable by scramjets could potentially make space launches more economical. Currently, a significant portion of a rocket's weight is its oxidizer, used to burn its fuel in space. Since scramjets can utilize oxygen from the atmosphere, at least in the lower portions of the flight, this can reduce the weight of the rocket and, consequently, the cost associated with launching payloads into space.

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