Hypersonic aircraft. (Courtesy of NASA)

As civilian spaceflight increases, a VCU researcher’s work will help improve safety in hypersonic jets

Ibrahim Guven's research will spur the development of advanced materials for ultra-fast aircraft.

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Jeff Bezos’ and Richard Branson’s adventures in spaceflight tourism made headlines this past summer. Four more civilians went into orbit in September. Last month, “Star Trek” luminary William Shatner, at 90, became the oldest person ever to go to space.

One thing is clear: Space travel for the rest of us is the wave of the future.

New research by Ibrahim Guven, Ph.D., an associate professor in Virginia Commonwealth University’s Department of Mechanical and Nuclear Engineering in the College of Engineering, will help engineers create advanced materials for vehicles traveling at five times the speed of sound. Called hypersonic aircraft, these vehicles need superior cladding to be safe.

When an aircraft traveling 3,000 mph hits even a tiny particle, the impact is significant. Guven is working to determine just how significant those high-speed encounters could be. He has received $450,000 from the U.S. Department of Defense’s Office of Naval Research to analyze how rain, ice, sand, dust, volcanic ash, aerosols and other particles impact surfaces of hypersonic aircraft.  

At ultra-high speeds, the impact of a small particle can alter aerodynamics because the stability of an aircraft is related to how air is moving around the surface, Guven said. Disturb the surface, and the flow field changes. This can create friction pockets that get too hot, or even cause a structural asymmetry that alters the flight dynamics of the vehicle. Both situations get worse over time.

New research by Ibrahim Guven, Ph.D. will help engineers create advanced materials for hypersonic vehicles. (College of Engineering)

Guven likened the process to a pebble hitting a windshield.

“It’s happened to all of us, right? A tiny pebble hits it and now you have a little chip. Later, on a hot summer day, you hear the cracking noise. You let it go, but it just gets bigger,” he said. “A similar mechanism is at play [with hypersonic vehicles], but with a much shorter time frame. You don't have a couple of seasons, or a couple of years [to address it].”

To help engineers plan for these impacts, Guven and his team are developing a general purpose, computational framework to gain insights on the mechanics of growing cracks. This framework will offer a streamlined way to model the spread of multiple dynamic fractures, without the need for additional equations. 

The team will be working with a Sandia National Laboratories analysis code whose developer has a working relationship with Guven’s lab. 

Students will play a large role in this research, Guven said, adding that this project offers master’s and Ph.D. students an opportunity to delve into both solid and fluid mechanics, as well as shock physics. He is currently recruiting graduate students for this work.

“This problem of hypersonic flight is at the leading edge of aerospace research,” Guven said. “It will only get hotter and hotter — it’s not going anywhere. It will not only affect the defense industry but also the private aerospace industry. There is a lot of opportunity here.”