NASA Nanotubes Promise Hypersonic Planes That Can Fly Across US in Under 1 Hour

Wednesday, 18 October 2017 - 10:35AM
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Wednesday, 18 October 2017 - 10:35AM
NASA Nanotubes Promise Hypersonic Planes That Can Fly Across US in Under 1 Hour
Image Credit: NASA

Picture this: You've scheduled two business meetings in New York and LA, and they're just one hour apart.

Time to cancel one of the appointments, right? Maybe not, thanks to NASA's newest technological breakthrough.

 

NASA is currently working on a new material for the construction of planes that could potentially allow for hypersonic flight that's far faster than we've ever managed before.

 

The problem with a plane moving at hypersonic speeds is that the air around the plane provides so much friction and heat that the craft could be torn apart if it's not made from a sturdy enough material. Thick metal like titanium is difficult to get off the ground and has limitations as to how fast it can be pushed through the air compared to the more common aluminum that's used in the construction of most modern aircraft.

NASA, working with the University of Birmingham in the U.K., is experimenting with nanotubes made from boron nitrate.

Nanotubes made from carbon are already commonly used in airplane construction - think of this as a sheet of corrugated cardboard, but made from something slightly sturdier - but making the same shaped material out of boron nitrate instead allows for much more heat and stress resistance while still keeping a theoretical aircraft light enough to fly.



Scientists are now discovering that boron nanotubes can withstand heats of 1,652 degrees Fahrenheit (900 Celsius), a significant improvement over the 752 Fahrenheit (400 Celsius) that planes are currently capable of. This could potentially allow planes to travel at far faster speeds than are currently possible, allowing a plane to make its way at hypersonic speeds from one side of the continental US to the other in less than one hour.

Okay, so in our imaginary scenario it probably still wouldn't be possible to get from New York to LA in the required traveling time - lest we forget the TSA - but it'd certainly be more possible than it is right now.

Of course, there's still one big problem we need to be overcome to make nanotube technology into a reality: the cost of such a plane would be astronomical.

Boron nitrate isn't cheap - it costs $1,000 for a single gram of nanotubes made with this material.

It's fine for small, limited university studies, but there's no way anyone's going to want to commission a commercial airplane out of this stuff just for the sake of making flights quicker. (Unless you're Elon Musk and you're already comfortable charging passengers $200,000 for a plane ticket.) 

Currently, not a lot of places around the world even have the resources and equipment to produce boron nitrate nanotubes, and while NASA has the technology to create them, the space program isn't in the habit of printing materials for commercial use simply on a whim.

The good news is that over time the price of boron nitrate nanotubes may well drop. Twenty years ago, carbon nanotubes cost around the same as boron nitrate does now, and that price has steadily fallen to just $10-20 a gram, as scientists have found myriad commercial uses for the technology.

In the meantime, though, if you're stuck in a situation where you need to get from New York to LA in an hour, the only way you'll manage it is if you have an enormous pile of money to spend on research and development for a hypersonic private jet.

If you're that wealthy, though, you could just reschedule one of your meetings. (Oh yeah, there's also a little thing called Skype.)

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NASA Nanotube Tech Teases Hypersonic Planes
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