DARPA Is Working On Next Generation Materials For Hypersonic Vehicles

  • DARPA announced a new program named MACH that seeks to build new design and materials for hypersonic vehicles.  
  • The aim is to develop sharp leading edge solutions that can handle high heat fluxes and deliver performance beyond the existing carbon-carbon composite-based systems. 

Hypersonic planes and weapons are perhaps a dream of the future, but to make this a reality, researchers need to come up with advanced materials that have incredible ability to handle extremely high temperatures created at hypersonic speeds.

For those who don’t know, anything that travels faster than Mach 5 — five times the speed of sound — is hypersonic. Some vehicles have achieved such incredibly high speeds, but only for a brief period of time. North American X-15, for example, was an experimental manned aircraft that set the highest speed record of Mach 6.7 in 1967.

Designing structures that can withstand thousands of degrees of heat at such high speeds is a challenging task, especially for leading edges that experience the maximum amount of heat.

Now, DARPA has taken a step further to address this technical challenge. The agency has announced a new program named MACH (short for Material Architectures and Characterization for Hypersonics) that seeks to build new design and materials for hypersonic vehicles.

Although engineers have been working on ways to cool the hypersonic vehicle’s hot leading edges, they haven’t been able to deliver any feasible concept in flight. However, recent advances in thermal engineering could enable scalable materials architectures that can efficiently reject heat and enhance hypersonic performance.

MACH Program Structure

The main objective is to create a new type of thermally-managed, sharp leading edge architecture for high lift-to-drag ratio hypersonic air vehicles that can operate at intense heat fluxes. These non-eroding leading edges will improve the operational capability of vehicles, making them fly faster and farther.

The MACH program will focus on two things:

T1. Developing and testing integrated thermal management systems for a scaled leading edge.
T2. Next-generation materials research for hypersonic vehicles to achieve impressive leading edge capability.

Image credit: DARPA

It’s a four year, two-phase effort program. The first phase will be executed in 27 months and the next phase will be given the remaining 21 months.

In T2, DARPA will try to obtain leading edge capability beyond the T1 performance metrics, which include new thermal management methods, ceramics, metals, and coatings, along with new features required to develop these materials and techniques.

Reference: Fbo.gov | DARPA 

Successful approaches will explore:

  1. New materials spaces, such as ceramic compositions, new metal alloys, and coating performance at temperatures more than 2,200 degree Celsius.
  2. Subcomponent technologies, including methodologies to obtain extreme cooling.
  3. Modeling capabilities to speed up mission-specific materials development.

Moreover, all material development techniques will utilize ICME (short for integrated computational materials engineering) framework to improve material optimization and enable system-level performance projection.

Read: DARPA Will Use Laser Light Source To Power Small Aircraft On The Fly

If everything goes according to the plan, we could see a breakthrough in reducing aerothermal effect — that would ultimately improve hypersonic performance — in next four years.

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