This is seriously cool. American aerospace company Orbital ATK has tested a 3D-printed hypersonic engine combustor, one that could supposedly be used in a high-speed plane known as a scramjet.
The test was carried out at NASA’s Langley Research Center, with the combustor being made by a process known as powder bed fusion (PBF). According to Gizmag, this is when "a layer of metal alloy powder is laid down by the printer and a laser or electron beam fuses areas of it by following a digital pattern. Multiple layers are added until the product is finished.
“Additive manufacturing opens up new possibilities for our designers and engineers,” said Pat Nolan, Vice President and General Manager of Orbital ATK’s Missile Products division of the Defense Systems Group, in a statement. “This combustor is a great example of a component that was impossible to build just a few years ago. This successful test will encourage our engineers to continue to explore new designs and use these innovative tools to lower costs and decrease manufacturing time.”
In the tests, the combustor was put through high-temperature hypersonic flight conditions in a wind tunnel for 20 days, and it passed with flying colors. Supposedly such a combustor could allow for stable combustion even at speeds of more than Mach 5 (6,200 km/h, or 3,800 mph), achievable by scramjet vehicles.
It’s unclear what exactly this engine will be used for at the moment, if anything. But in the statement, Orbital said they were exploring “one of several manufacturing methods” such as PBF.
A scramjet, or a supersonic combusting ramjet, works by using the intake of oxygen and high speeds to provide the oxidizer for its combustion engine, rather than carrying oxygen like other vehicles. The speed of the vehicle compresses the air, meaning it operates most efficiently at high speeds.
There have been a few experimental scramjet tests in the past, but no vehicle has ever gone into prolonged operation. A successful scramjet engine could theoretically get from London to New York in a rather brisk 30 minutes.