Air-breathing rocket engine development firm receives US$38m boost

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UK-based aerospace company Reaction Engines has secured a £26.5m (US$38m) investment to fund the further development of its synergetic air-breathing rocket engine SABRE.

The latest investors in the project include Boeing, through its HorizonX Ventures investment arm, and aero-engine maker Rolls-Royce. Existing industrial backers of Reaction Engines include defense and aerospace company BAE Systems, which invested £20.6m (US$29.5m) in 2015.

The latest round of funding brings the total invested in Reaction Engines to almost £100m (US$143m) over the last three years. This includes £60m (US$86m) of funding from the UK government and the European Space Agency (ESA).

SABRE is initially being developed for use on Reaction’s Skylon aircraft, which is being designed to travel directly into Earth orbit, for cheaper and more reliable access to space.

The engine’s main innovation is its pre-cooler, which is designed to continuously cool an incoming airstream from more than 1,000°C to –150°C in less than 1/100th second. The pre-cooler is made from Inconel 718 and uses tubes arranged in an involute spiral inside a cylindrical drum to increase its heat transfer capabilities.

Sabre’s air-breathing characteristics mean that from take-off to Mach 5, Skylon will be able to operate as a jet aircraft, until at an altitude of approximately 15 miles it switches to run as a rocket fueled by liquid oxygen.

By reducing the amount of time operating as a rocket and switching in the upper atmosphere, the amount of liquid oxygen fuel the engine needs is reduced, which improves the aircraft’s cost effectiveness, reusability and commercial viability.

Reaction Engines said that it is on track to start ground-based testing of a SABRE engine core in 2020 and is currently constructing a new facility in Westcott, Buckinghamshire, UK, for SABRE testing.

The funds will also be used to accelerate Reaction Engines’ commercialization plans for its heat exchanger technology, for which it says there are opportunities in motorsport, electric vehicle thermal management, waste heat recuperation, small satellite cooling and aero-engines.

Mark Thomas, CEO of Reaction Engines, said, “This is a significant milestone and I am delighted to welcome our new strategic and financial shareholders. These new partners bring invaluable expertise in both hypersonics and engine technologies with significant access to target markets.

“This is not only a vote of confidence in our technology but also underlines belief in our ability to develop a thriving commercial business which will provide strong financial returns for our shareholders.”

Paul Stein, chief technology officer, Rolls-Royce, said, “We are delighted to become a strategic investor and look forward to working with Reaction Engines Limited and assisting with the development of their technology. We plan to incorporate this technology into our own future products.”

Steve Nordlund, vice president of Boeing HorizonX, said, “Our investment in Reaction Engines is our first in a UK-based company. As Reaction Engines unlocks advanced propulsion that could change the future of air and space travel, we expect to leverage their revolutionary technology to support Boeing’s pursuit of hypersonic flight.”

Reaction Engines also recently secured a contract from the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to conduct high-temperature airflow testing of its pre-cooler heat exchanger.

April 16, 2018

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Ben has worked all of his career as a journalist and now editor, covering almost all aspects of technology, engineering and industry. In the last 16 years he has written on subjects from nuclear submarines and autonomous cars to future design and manufacturing technologies and commercial aviation. Latterly editor of a leading engineering magazine, he brings an eye for a great story and lots of experience to the team.

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