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Flying into the future

Flying into the future

Imagine an airplane that tops out at 3,400 miles per hour. Sound impossible? Not to chemistry Assistant Professor Peter Kroll, who is working to make such a hypersonic vehicle a reality.

So can we anticipate three-hour flights to Australia?

No, I don't expect there to be an accompanying tourism boom. The hypersonic aircraft would most likely be used by the military or for space travel.

NASA and the Air Force Office of Scientific Research awarded you a five-year grant worth up to half a million dollars. What are you working on?

Two postdoctoral students and I are developing new ultra-high-performance ceramic composite materials capable of sustaining hypersonic flight temperatures of 2,000 degrees Celsius.

How will you test the materials?

We're using multi-scale simulation techniques ranging from quantum chemical calculations to multimillion-atom simulations and continuum methods.

Doesn't NASA already use heat-resistant, high-performance materials in things like rocket nozzles?

Yes, but a rocket nozzle is used one time. For the two or three minutes after the blast, the materials can sustain that. But with a hypersonic vehicle, this extreme environment needs to be sustained much longer. You want something reusable that doesn't require an incredibly high amount of maintenance.

Given that, could erosion also be a problem?

Yes. At hypersonic speed, the wear caused by air reduces the lifetime of the structure. The ceramic composite must be hard and durable enough to withstand this erosion at high speed and high temperature.

Could such materials be used in other things?

The possibilities are endless. Speed-of-flight is only one application. Developing materials capable of sustaining super-high temperatures could, for example, lead to more efficient energy plants.

What's the timeline for all this?

Our first findings will be released in about a year, and the materials could be developed within 10 to 15 years. I believe we'll have a hypersonic aircraft within 30 years.