This year’s South by Southwest festival, which starts on Friday in Austin, Texas, includes some fascinating looking talks on the “Intelligent Future” – how technology could transform every aspect of our lives.
The jet that takes you from New York to Beijing in just two hours
To mark the occasion, Inkstone is starting a series looking at cutting-edge technology being developed by Chinese scientists.
These range from the search for alien life to work to build an “unhackable” internet.
Today we start with a project that could cut the journey time between Beijing and New York, a distance of 6,800 miles, from 14 hours to just two.
A team from the Chinese Academy of Sciences has devised a prototype for a hypersonic plane that could travel at 3,700 miles per hour – five times the speed of sound.
The researchers tested a scaled-down model of the plane in a wind tunnel that has also been used by China’s hypersonic weapons programme.
The new design, dubbed the “I-plane” because of its I-shaped cross-section, has two layers of wings – the lower layer sweeping forward like a pair of outstretched arms, and an upper layer in a more conventional delta shape.
The design should allow it to carry a significantly heavier payload than existing hypersonic vehicles.
In a paper published in February in the journal Science China Physics, Mechanics and Astronomy, researchers said that the prototype had performed surprisingly well at speeds of up to 5,340mph.
The amount of lift generated by the new hypersonic vehicle was about 25% that of a commercial jet of the same size, according to the study.
That means an I-plane as big as a Boeing 737 could carry up to five tons of cargo, or 50 passengers. A typical Boeing 737 can carry up to 20 tons of cargo or around 200 passengers.
There is also a military application to all this. America and China, as well as other major nations, are racing to develop hypersonic weapons that would enable them to penetrate effortlessly another country’s missile defence system.
The Pentagon is concerned. “China’s hypersonic weapons development outpaces ours,” Admiral Harry Harris, commander of the Navy’s Pacific Command, warned Congress in February. “We’re falling behind.”
In the US, Lockheed Martin is working to develop the SR-72, a hypersonic reconnaissance and strike aircraft, which is thought to have been tested in California in September.
It’s also working on the supersonic “X-plane” which would cut the New York–Beijing flight to seven hours.
But the Chinese hypersonic plane could be a gamechanger in this field. However, regardless of whether the research is going to be used for military or civilian purposes there are still major practical difficulties.
These include improving the capacity to carry heavy payloads and dealing with the 1,800°F heat that hypersonic travel would entail.
Although researchers have identified potential solutions – such as using heat-resistant materials and a liquid-cooling system to push the heat out – they have yet to find a way to make it work.