A Chinese research team has come up with a new design for an ultra-fast plane they say will be able to take dozens of people and tonnes of cargo from Beijing to New York in about two hours.
The plane would travel at hypersonic speed – more than 6,000km/h, faster than five times the speed of sound – according to the team, which is also involved in China’s top secret hypersonic weapons programme.
The speed of sound is about 343 metres per second, or 1,235km/h.
“It will take only a couple of hours to travel from Beijing to New York at hypersonic speed,” the researchers led by Cui Kai wrote in a paper this month in the academic journal Physics, Mechanics and Astronomy, published by Science China Press.
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Normally, it takes a regular passenger aeroplane about 14 hours to fly between the two cities – a distance of about 11,000km.
Cui and his team at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing tested a smaller model of the plane in a wind tunnel. They pushed the model plane to seven times the speed of sound and found it performed surprisingly well, with low drag and high lift.
The team, at the academy’s Key Laboratory of High Temperature Gas Dynamics, have dubbed the new hypersonic vehicle the “I-plane”.
With two layers of wings, the I-plane design resembles the biplanes used during the first world war. This biplane design means the aircraft will be able to handle much heavier loads than existing hypersonic vehicles that have a traditional streamlined shape.
At extremely high speeds, they said the double layer of wings works together to reduce turbulence and drag while increasing the aircraft’s overall lift capacity.
However, the amount of lift generated by the new hypersonic vehicle was only about 25 per cent of a commercial jet of the same size, according to the study. This means it would only carry 50 passengers compared to the 200 a typical Boeing 737 can.
Additionally, many issues still need to be tackled for this to move beyond the conceptual stage.
All known hypersonic vehicles being developed worldwide are still in the experimental stage because of the many technological challenges that exist, and none of them can take passengers yet.
For example, travelling at hypersonic speed generates a huge amount of heat, possibly exceeding 1,000 degrees Celsius. If that heat cannot be dealt with effectively, the vehicle would not be able to carry live passengers. Although researchers have found potential solutions to this problem – such as using heat-resistant materials and a liquid-cooling system to push the heat out – this aspect again is still experimental.
China has also tested various types of hypersonic vehicles over the Gobi Desert in recent years, some capable of reaching 10 times the speed of sound.