A new wind tunnel may put China decades ahead in the race to further develop hypersonic technologies, according to a prominent Chinese physicist.
The wind tunnel is the JF-22 facility, situated in Beijing’s Huairou District, and it’s capable of simulating flights moving at Mach 30, thirty times the speed of sound.
The JF-22, as well as a similar facility also located in Beijing, could put China “twenty to thirty years” ahead of the West, said Han Guilai, a hypersonic researcher with the Institute of Mechanics at the Chinese Academy of Sciences.
The 15 gigawatts of power produced by the tunnel is roughly 70% the output of China’s Three Gorges Dam in Sichuan, the world’s largest hydropower facility, and 700% larger than the Hoover Dam in Nevada.
Facilities like JF-22 can create more power because they do not use traditional means to generate wind inside the tunnel; standard wind tunnels rely on massive air compressors that generate high-speed winds.
Instead, modern Chinese wind tunnels have opted for chemical explosions to generate higher velocity airspeeds. When operating, JF-22 burns its fuel 100 million times faster than a kitchen-grade gas stove.
Burning at such intensity sets off a series of shockwaves, not too dissimilar to those made by hypersonic planes when flying at maximum velocity. The resulting airspeed means crafts inside the tunnel can simulate velocities upwards of 35 000 kilometres per hour.
At those speeds the air particles change, becoming denser and thicker and almost mudlike – very different from the air we are used to breathing freely, said Guilai.
At such significant velocity, the surface of any craft moving that fast could heat up to 10 000 degrees Celsius, releasing an electric charge and boiling the air around it, breaking air molecules down to an atomic level.
China and other major global players have made significant investment in hypersonic development in the past few years as the technology may be the future of air travel. Along with the very obvious military applications hypersonic technology presents, hypersonic airliners could theoretically be able to fly from Beijing to Los Angeles in under two hours.
Two years ago, Chinese authorities working closely with hypersonic research conducted test flights of a “prototype space plane”. It was capable of travelling at outer atmosphere altitudes, at hypersonic velocities, and made safe landings at standard international airports, according to the South China Morning Post.
Hypersonic technology may also open space travel to the global community at large, cutting costs by up to 90%.
The official launch date of the JF-22 wind tunnel has not yet been announced but once in full operation, it will work with the JF-12 tunnel to simulate a wide variety of hypersonic flight conditions.