Tag Archives: engine

Rolls-Royce successfully tests their new, all-electrical airplane engine

You’ve heard of electric cars, but what about planes? Well, Rolls-Royce is working hard to make them a reality — and make them fast.

Image credits Rolls-Royce.

The company has announced in a blog post that it successfully completed the testing of the technology that will underpin its range of electric airplanes. The testing was part of Rolls-Royce’s ACCEL initiative, which aims to “build the fastest all-electric plane the world has ever seen”.

Battery bird

“Electrification of aerospace to enable sustainable power is going to be a key part [of the future of aircraft]”, a spokesman for the company said in a video showcasing the testing site and rig.

The testing didn’t involve a proper aircraft, but rather a full-scale model of the front part of the ionBird — which is what Rolls-Royce Motor Cars Limited has christened their future plane.

Still, the model included all the bits that needed testing. The electric engine developed around 500 horsepower, requiring 6,000 lithium-ion energy cells to do so. All in all, they store enough energy to fly the plane for around 320 km (~200 miles) at 480 km/h (~300 mph). To put things into perspective, the company explains that is roughly enough power to supply 250 houses, although they do not say for how long.

The engine was developed in partnership with British-based motor manufacturer YASA and aviation start-up Electroflight. Bremont, a luxury watch company, pitched in to design the dashboard and are tasked with timing everything during the testing phases.

The current test aimed to determine the operating parameters of the engine, its real-life capabilities, and how safe it is to use. The team successfully reached its full speed of 2,400 propeller rotations per minute and recorded a wealth of data on various parts of the engine and fuselage. This will be used to tweak the ionBird’s performance, optimize its engine, and develop the procedures that pilots and mechanics will actually follow when the plane hits the market.

For now, Rolls-Royce aims to perform the ionBird’s maiden flight this year, and hold timing trials sometime in early 2021. The proposed design is a single-seater with three axial motors.

Engines at MacGregor.

Experimental SpaceX engine explodes during trials, damaging the McGregor, Texas facilities

SpaceX’s McGregor facilities in Central Texas were rocked this Sunday as a Merlin engine exploded during testing. Two of the facility’s test bays were damaged, but nobody was harmed according to SpaceX.


Nine Merlin engines on the Falcon 9’s first stage.
Image credits SpaceX.

An explosion on Sunday (November 4) rocked SpaceX’s rocket-development facility at McGregor, Texas. The engine in question is being developed for the Block 5 version of SpaceX’s tried-and-true Falcon 9 craft. The explosion occurred before the engine was lit, during a procedure known as a LOX drop. The step involves pumping liquid oxygen through the engine to check for potential leaks, and an unknown event caused the liquid within the rocket to ignite.

Being an engine-in-development, the company is confident that its current launch manifest won’t be affected by the event. Three to four more launches are planned for this year (and the start of 2018), all of which will be powered by the Block 4 and an earlier version of the Merlin.

“All safety protocols were followed during the time of this incident,” said a company spokesman, John Taylor. “We are now conducting a thorough and fully transparent investigation of the root cause. SpaceX is committed to our current manifest, and we do not expect this to have any impact on our launch cadence.”

Nobody was hurt in the event, but it did damage the facility. SpaceX has three engine test stands in use at McGregor: one for the Merlin line of engines, one for the newer and more powerful Raptor, and one dedicated to upper-stage engines. Both bays of the Merlin stand were damaged. SpaceX said one of them should be up and running within a couple of days, while the other may require up to four weeks of repair works.

Engines at MacGregor.

Two SpaceX Merlin 1D engines on a test stand at the company’s facility in McGregor, Texas.
Image credits SpaceX.

If repairs on the first bay go as planned, the company should be able to continue “acceptance testing” for its Block 4 Merlin engines. This represents the penultimate test before a rocket is assembled, shipped to the launch site, and the entire booster undergoes a static fire test on the launch pad.

The Block 5 variant is expected to improve the Falcon 9’s overall performance, in particular making it simpler and faster to re-use. It’s also this variant that Elon Musk plans to use for commercial crew flights, the missions which will ferry NASA astronauts to the International Space Station.

Needless to say, SpaceX has a lot riding on the Block 5 working properly, and on time. A maiden flight hasn’t been announced but was widely expected to take place at some point in 2018. However, testing of the Block 5 Merlin engine will be suspended until the cause of that ignition is found and fixed. SpaceX anticipates that a full investigation into the incident will take several weeks, which may delay the debut.

Second generation EM drive is just around the corner, patent made public on Friday

The impossible drive has just been upgraded to version 2.0, and it’s expected to be several times more powerful than previous versions.

First generation EM Drive.
Image via Wikimedia.

It’s been a good year for seemingly physics-bending propulsion. After getting NASA’s seal of approval and successfully completing a 10 week-long trial, the engine’s future seems assured. Now the UK’s Intellectual Property Office has released the most advanced EM drive patient application to date — the work of the drive’s inventor Roger Shawyer.

“The patent process is a very significant process, it’s not like an academic peer review where everyone hides behind an anonymous review, it’s all out in the open,” Shawyer told the International Business Times.

Shawyer created the first EM drive — and a lot of controversy to go with it — in 1999. Since then, he’s been applying patents for each and every tweak he brings to the design. He says that millions of pounds rely on this procedure.

“This is a proper, professional way of establishing prior ownership done by professionals in the patent office, and in order to publish my patent application, they had to first carry out a thorough examination of the physics in order to establish that the invention does not contravene the laws of physics.”

As for the controversy part, it’s not hard to see the thorn here. The device seems to break one of the most fundamental laws of physics, Newton’s Third Law: when one body exerts a force upon a second, the second acts upon the first with equal force in the opposite direction — the “each action has an equal and opposite reaction” rule. It’s the law that prevents you from getting into a sail boat and then moving it by blowing on the sails.

Yet, the EM drive is basically just that — blowing on your own sail and moving forward. It relies on electromagnetic waves, creating thrust by bouncing photons back and forth inside a closed metal cone, causing the pointy end to accelerate forward. Which, according to the Third Law, shouldn’t be possible — the photons bouncing inside should push on both ends equally, canceling out the acceleration. In the absence of an exhaust compound, it shouldn’t be able to generate thrust. Back in 2014 when NASA first tested the drive and made it work, they reported that:

“Test results indicate that the RF resonant cavity thruster design, which is unique as an electric propulsion device, is producing a force that is not attributable to any classical electromagnetic phenomenon and therefore is potentially demonstrating an interaction with the quantum vacuum virtual plasma.”

Or, as Andrei put it:

“I believe that translates as,We are not entirely sure why, but it works.

Since then, several other tests have confirmed that the drive works and NASA’s findings were sound. Even better, the tests revealed not only that the EM drive can produce thrust, but it can churn out a lot of it, having the potential to power an entire spacecraft. Using such an engine would also have the huge advantage of replacing the heavy and bulky fuel needed for conventional thrusters — something which has severely limited our mobility in the Solar System. As NASA’s Eagleworks Laboratories lead researcher Harold White said, an EM drive-powered Mars flight would take only 70 days — less than half of what it would take with current drives.

Shawyer’s latest patent has been made public. It describes the new design, which includes a single, flat, superconducting plate on one end, covered with a non-conducting plate with a distinctive shape on the other. Here’s a diagram of the control circuit.

Image credits Shawyer et al., 2016.

He said this design minimizes the internal Doppler shift (the change in wavelength or frequency of a wave perceived by an observer moving relative to the source — the same process that makes a car sound differently when speeding towards than when it’s speeding away from you) and lowering production costs.

“This is pretty significant, because it enables you to easily manufacture these things, and we want to produce thousands of them,” he added.

“The patent makes the construction of a viable superconducting thruster easier, and it will produce a lot of thrust.”

You can access the full patent here.

The IBT reports that Shawyer is working with an unnamed UK aerospace company to develop the second generation EM drive. Shawyer says the new device will produce many orders of magnitude more thrust than what any of the teams so far have observed.

So right now, all we have to do is wait for the patents to go through then see how much juice this baby can churn out. Space cars, anyone?


Take me to Mars: NASA signs $67M contract for new solar electric propulsion engine

A company called Aerojet Rocketdyne has won a $67 million contract from NASA to design and develop an advanced electric propulsion system that could power complex missions to asteroids and even to Mars.

Advanced solar electric propulsion will be needed for future human expeditions into deep space, including to Mars. Shown here is a 13-kilowatt Hall thruster being evaluated at NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland. Hall thrusters trap electrons in a magnetic field and use them to ionize the onboard propellant. It uses 10 times less propellant than equivalent chemical rockets.

Aerojet Rocketdyne is an American rocket and missile propulsion manufacturer, resulting from the merger of Aerojet and Pratt & Whitney. They’re not newcomers in the field, with the two companies having previously designed several engines which have been in use for decades on various shuttles. This will be one of their most ambitious projects to date, setting the stage for a deep space mission by 2020.

In the press release announcing this contract, Steve Jurczyk, associate administrator of NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate said:

“Development of this technology will advance our future in-space transportation capability for a variety of NASA deep-space human and robotic exploration missions, as well as private commercial space missions,” he said.

Aerojet Rocketdyne will build, test and deliver an engineering development unit for testing and evaluation in preparation for producing the follow-on flight units. The goal of the 36-month long project will be to develop and deliver an integrated electric propulsion system consisting of a thruster, power processing unit (PPU), low-pressure xenon flow controller, and electrical harness. The work will complement recent advanced solar array systems.

It’s not the first time NASA has approached this type of technology. They have been refining the development of spaceflight electric propulsion technology for more than five decades, with significant progress. The space agency is relying more and more on solar electric propulsion for long-term missions, but there still isn’t an available engine for deep space missions – this is what this contract wants to achieve.


biggest engine in the world

This is what 109,000 horsepower looks like — meet the biggest and most powerful engine in the world

biggest engine in the world

This jaw-dropper is the Wärtsilä RT-flex96C, the world’s largest and most powerful diesel engine.

largest engine

Built in Finland, the RT-flex96C’s fourteen cylinders can generate 107,389HP with more than 7,000,000Nm of torque — that’s enough to power an entire suburban town.


The engine weighs 2,300 tons and stands 44-feet tall and 90-feet long – more than a four-story building. Redline is at 102 RPM, but the torque is enough to tear a tank to shreds.

turboHow’s that for a turbo boost? 

Each of the 14 built-in cylinders devours 6.5 ounces of diesel in one cycle that produces 5700 kW of energy. That might sound like a lot, but the engine is actually highly efficient and one of the least polluting of its kind.


You might wonder what kind of behemoth would need so much power. In 2006, the Wärtsilä RT-flex96C engine was installed and finally set sail on the Emma Mærsk, a cargo ship that can carry 11,000 20-foot shipping containers at a breakneck speed of 31 knots, whereas most other ships in its class typically cruise with 20 knots.

Container ship Emma Maersk  in Hamburg, June 2014. Credit: Hummelhummel, CC BY-SA 3.0.

Container ship Emma Maersk in Hamburg, June 2014. Credit: Hummelhummel, CC BY-SA 3.0.

The ship regularly ferries cargo from China to the U.S, which it can deliver four days earlier than its competition, saving a lot of money. There are currently 25 such engines roaming the world’s oceans, and another 86 are on the way.

What the engine looks like installed in the ship. 

All in all, this is one of the most amazing feats of human engineering.

Wall-Less Hall drives poised to unlock space colonization

French scientist working with Hall thrusters — an advanced type of engine that harnesses a stream of plasma to generate forward momentum — have recently figured out a way to optimize these drives, allowing them to run on a staggering (wait for it) 100 million times less fuel than conventional chemical rockets. Their work has been published in Applied Physics Letters.

6 kW Hall-effect thruster in operation at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
Image via wikipedia

They work just like regular ion thrusters, blasting a stream of charged ions from an anode ( + charge) to a cathode ( – charge). They are pulled by magnetism towards the back of the ship and then pushed by magnetic repulsion out of the ship, propelling the craft forwards. The technology isn’t new: such engines have been in operation since 1971, and are now routinely employed on satellites and space probes to adjust their orbit when needed. They are ideal for space use, and scientists plan to use them to get humans to Mars…there’s only one small problem: the lifespan of current Hall thrusters clocks in at a maximum of 10,000 operational hours, way too short for any space exploration mission.

This is because, unlike traditional ion drives, Hall thrusters do not have a physical cathode: they utilize a magnetic field and a trapped electron cloud that serve as a hollow, “virtual” cathode. A charged ion stream is produced by injecting xenon, these heavier atoms capable of passing unimpeded through the magnetic field and are subsequently neutralized. This creates a relatively low-pressure discharge, but in the void of space it’s powerful enough to provide thrust in the opposite direction of the flow of ions.

And this is the Achilles’s heel of the drive: the components that make up the anode, virtual cathode and electron cloud. This container, the discharge channel wall, is constantly being bombarded by high-energy ions, wearing it down so much that the part requires constant repairs or even replacing to allow the drive to function.

So, researchers from the French National Center for Scientific Research, presumably with a roar of “for science!” took the wall out of the device altogether:

“An effective approach to avoid the interaction between the plasma and the discharge channel wall is to move the ionisation and acceleration regions outside the cavity, which is an unconventional design named a Wall-Less Hall Thruster,” said lead researcher, Julien Vaudolon.

The two prototypes of the Wall-Less Hall thruster.
Image via sciencealert

It’s not all roses however, as Esther Inglis Arkell explains for Gizmodo:

“The red anode should be lined up on the wall emitting xenon. Instead, it’s in the magnetic field, allowing electrons to glom onto it, reducing performance,” she says, referring to the device on the left in the above image, which was a total failure.

“The new design [on the right] makes the small change, which allows the anode to keep clear of the field. This one seems to work.”

Since the engine uses so little fuel compared to chemical drives, it frees up a lot of room in spacecrafts — meaning more cargo can be transported, or more passengers.

This frees up valuable space that we need for the long-run, deep space missions required to transport people and supplies to other planets, such as Mars. All that remains is for scientists to measure how much this approach extends the operational lifespan of the Hall thrusters, since at least 50.000 hours reliability is required to reach the red planet.

Researchers create new type of engine that is 4 times more efficient than internal combustion

Here’s something you probably didn’t know about your average internal combustion car engine: it only uses 15 percent for propulsion! Of course it could never go up to 100 percent or even close to this value, but fifteen is just too low. Researchers at Michigan State University thought about the same thing, so they built a prototype that uses 60 percent of fuel for propulsion; the prototype could reduce car emissions by 90%, and doesn’t have any valves, pistons or crankshafts.

The new prototype’s core is a disk-shaped wave generator, about as big as an average saucepan, and requires no transmission, no cooling, so you’ll not only be doing something great for nature and using less gas, but you will also be spending way less money on maintenance too.

The engine works like this: “A rotor, with a wave-like pattern carved into channels. The fuel and air enter and mix through the central inlets. The rotor then spins, blocking the exit of gasses. As the pressure builds it will generate a shock wave that will compress the mixture. Once it is ignited an outlet opens to let the hot gases escape, and your car can move as usual.” (Physorg).

The prototype was developed and presented by Norbert Müller and other colleagues at Michigan State University at a meeting with the Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency. It’s exactly this kind of research that can make a big technological leap on a global scale that our society needs, if you ask me.