The aerospace industry is pushing the boundaries of 3D printing (and physics) with the development of hypersonic aircraft. Hypersonic aircraft are capable of traveling at speeds of Mach 5 or higher, relying on scramjet engines that compress air passing through them at high speeds.
The technology has sparked the interest of start-up companies, such as Hermeus Corp., which recently passed a major milestone with the successful testing of their turbojet-ramjet engine, dubbed Chimera. The engine is a Turbine-based Combined Cycle (TBCC) engine, which is a hybrid between a turbojet and a ramjet, capable of taking off from a regular runway and accelerating up to hypersonic speeds.
To produce the Chimera and Quarterhorse (a hypersonic aircraft), Hermeus built a vertically integrated factory in Atlanta, utilizing metal AM to quickly produce complex metal parts, with about 15% of the Chimera engine consisting of printed components.
Metal additive manufacturing allows aerospace engineers to produce increasingly more complex parts and components (such as those with internal cooling channels) while increasing performance, consolidating components, reducing aircraft weight, and minimizing external dependencies.
“The TBCC engine is unique in the field of hypersonics,” says Glenn Case, chief technology officer at Hermeus. “Most hypersonic platforms are powered by a rocket engine. But, this approach makes reusability much harder and inherently more dangerous for passenger flight.”
“An additional benefit of this engine design is that it accommodates existing transportation infrastructure. [Our] aircraft are designed to be operational at traditional airports. This is important, not just for hypersonic testing, but critical given [our] goal of radically accelerating passenger travel through hypersonic flight.”
The Hermeus engineers are using advanced materials such as Inconel 718 and titanium to produce engines, fuselages, and wings that can withstand intense heat, shock waves, and vibration. Despite the challenges, the technology has the potential to revolutionize passenger travel, enabling people to cross the Atlantic Ocean in less than two hours and the Pacific Ocean in less than three hours, while cruising comfortably at 95,000 feet.
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