The Earth is big and no matter how convenient airplanes might become, it’s still a hassle flying from one part of the world to the other, but thanks to a technological breakthrough flights might become a lot shorter in the near-ish future.
Researchers at NASA and Binghamton University have tested a material that can withstand the extreme condition of hypersonic travel, which would substitute carbon nanotubes in the construction of these aircrafts. These planes could reach five to 10 times the speed of sound and reduce a 7-hour flight to about an hour.
"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," group leader Changhong Ke explained in a statement. "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," he added.
The study, published in Scientific Reports, focused on all the properties of BNNTS. They have to withstand high temperatures, but also they need to remain strong if they are to be used in aeronautics. Carbon nanotubes are actually stronger than steel, for example. To test the BNNTs properly the conditions they were exposed to were extreme, but also realistic. For example, the tests were all conducted in air.
"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.
So, when are we getting hypersonic planes? Sadly, it will still take a while. This is a step forward for the technology and shows the versatility of these BNNTs but they won’t be just slapped on a plane to be sent on its merry way just yet. Also, the BNNTs are rather expensive.
"Right now, BNNTs cost about $1,000 per gram. It would be impractical to use a product that expensive," said Ke.
A decade might be a sufficient time for the first working prototypes. Carbon nanotubes used to be just as expensive and they are now just 1 percent of the original cost. So, it may take years but hassle-free long-distance flights are looking likely in the future.