New Study Accelerates Development of Hypersonic Planes with Nanotechnology

The time taken for an average flight from Miami to Seattle is about six hours and 40 minutes, but imagine if it were possible to reduce that time to 50 minutes or less. A new study by Researchers at NASA and Binghamton University, State University of New York, could result in a substantial decrease in flight times.

The study, funded partly by the U.S. Air Force, is one of the principal steps toward the development of planes capable of moving at hypersonic speeds, five to 10 times the speed of sound.

This is Binghamton University Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering Changhong Ke. (CREDIT - Binghamton University, State University of New York)

There are presently quite a few problems when it comes to construction of these super planes, said Binghamton University Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering Changhong Ke. The first of which is identifying a material that can handle hypersonic travel.

Our study used what are called boron nitride nanotubes (BNNTs). NASA currently owns one of the few facilities in the world able to produce quality BNNTs.

Changhong Ke, Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering, Binghamton University

Normally, carbon nanotubes have been employed in planes for their strength - they are stronger than steel - and their ability to conduct heat. However, BNNTs possess high potential when it comes to air travel.

While carbon nanotubes can stay stable at temperatures up to 400 degrees Celsius, our study found that BNNTs can withstand up to 900 degrees Celsius. BNNTs are also able to handle high amounts of stress and are extremely lightweight.

Changhong Ke, Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering, Binghamton University

Enduring high temperatures is a vital requirement for any material meant for the construction of the world's next super planes. However, Ke stressed that the material must be able to maintain both mechanical and structural properties in an oxygen environment.

"We weren't testing this material in a vacuum, like what you would experience in space. Materials can withstand much higher temperatures in space. We wanted to see if BNNTs could hold up in the type of environment an average fighter jet or commercial plane would experience," Ke said.

While the study has shed new light to the stability and strength of BNNTs, their application on planes may not be a reality in the next five to 10 years.

Right now, BNNTs cost about $1,000 per gram. It would be impractical to use a product that expensive.

Changhong Ke, Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering, Binghamton University

However, that does not mean it will never take place. Carbon nanotubes were around the same price two decades ago. As additional studies showed the usefulness of carbon nanotubes, the production rates jumped and prices went down to the current rate, between $10 and $20 per gram. Ke foresees the same fate occurring for BNNTs.

Ke plans to pursue this type of research on BNNTs. He has worked with the U.S. Air Force on numerous research projects and in 2010 was selected for the U.S. Air Force's Young Investigator Research Program, an esteemed program with less than 20% of applicants chosen. While the progresses of BNNTs will perhaps be used first in fighter jets, Ke said he can foresee this type of technology filtering down to commercial flights.

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