Rolls-Royce increases involvement in hypersonic air-breathing engine development project


Rolls-Royce is to partner with aerospace firm Reaction Engines to develop high-speed aircraft propulsion systems and thermal management technology for civil and defence aerospace gas turbine engines and hybrid-electric systems.

Reaction Engine’s synergetic air-breathing rocket engine (SABRE) is being designed to offer hypersonic flight and 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.

Mark Thompson, director of global strategy and business development at Rolls-Royce said, “We have been working closely with Reaction Engines for the past two years, including exploring the potential of high-Mach systems for defence applications, and I am delighted that we are able to strengthen that relationship. This partnership follows our recent announcements with Boom Supersonic and Virgin Galactic.

“Reaction Engines’ thermal management skills, added to our suite of existing technologies and capabilities, will further assist us as we explore opportunities in supersonic and hypersonic aviation.

“Building on our many decades of innovation, we will also explore the use of Reaction Engines’ technology within our aerospace gas turbines and its potential application in future hybrid-electric propulsion systems, as we look to make flying ever more efficient and sustainable.”

Rolls-Royce initially invested in Reaction Engines in 2018 alongside Boeing, and will make a further investment in Reaction Engines as part of a current wider funding round. BAE Systems also has a 20% stake in Reaction Engines.

Rolls-Royce and Reaction Engines have also partnered on the first phase of a UK Ministry of Defence contract to undertake design studies, research, development, analysis and experimentation related to high-Mach advanced propulsion systems in the last two years.

“This strategic partnership is about developing market ready applications for Reaction Engines’ technology in next generation engines and is a significant step forward for our technology commercialisation plans,” said Mark Thomas, CEO of Reaction Engines.

“Our proprietary heat exchanger technology delivers incredible heat transfer capabilities at extremely low weight and a compact size. We look forward to expanding our international collaboration with Rolls-Royce, a global leader in power systems, to bring to market a range of applications that will transform the performance and efficiency of aircraft engines, enable high speed – supersonic and hypersonic – flight and support the drive towards more sustainable aviation through innovative new technologies.”

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Ben has worked as a journalist and editor, covering technology, engineering and industry for the last 20 years. Initially writing about subjects from nuclear submarines to autonomous cars to future design and manufacturing technologies, he was editor of a leading UK-based engineering magazine before becoming editor of Aerospace Testing in 2017.

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