Historically, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has used rocket-powered vehicles as launch vehicles for access to space. A familiar example is the Space Shuttle launch system. These vehicles carry both fuel and oxidizer onboard. If an external oxidizer (such as the Earth's atmosphere) is utilized, the need to carry an onboard oxidizer is eliminated, and future launch vehicles could carry a larger payload into orbit at a fraction of the total fuel expenditure. For this reason, NASA is currently researching the use of air-breathing engines to power the first stage of two-stage-to-orbit hypersonic launch systems. Removing the need to carry an onboard oxidizer leads also to reductions in total vehicle weight at liftoff. This in turn reduces the total mass of propellant required, and thus decreases the cost of carrying a specific payload into orbit or beyond. However, achieving hypersonic flight with air-breathing jet engines has several technical challenges. These challenges, such as the mode transition from supersonic to hypersonic engine operation, are under study in NASA's Fundamental Aeronautics Program.
One propulsion concept that is being explored is a magnetohydrodynamic (MHD) energy- bypass generator coupled with an off-the-shelf turbojet/turbofan. It is anticipated that this engine will be capable of operation from takeoff to Mach 7 in a single flowpath without mode transition. The MHD energy bypass consists of an MHD generator placed directly upstream of the engine, and converts a portion of the enthalpy of the inlet flow through the engine into electrical current. This reduction in flow enthalpy corresponds to a reduced Mach number at the turbojet inlet so that the engine stays within its design constraints. Furthermore, the generated electrical current may then be used to power aircraft systems or an MHD accelerator positioned downstream of the turbojet. The MHD accelerator operates in reverse of the MHD generator, re-accelerating the exhaust flow from the engine by converting electrical current back into flow enthalpy to increase thrust. Though there has been considerable research into the use of MHD generators to produce electricity for industrial power plants, interest in the technology for flight-weight aerospace applications has developed only recently.
In this research, electromagnetic fields coupled with weakly ionzed gases to slow hypersonic airflow were investigated within the confines of an MHD energy-bypass system with the goal of showing that it is possible for an air-breathing engine to transition from takeoff to Mach 7 without carrying a rocket propulsion system along with it. The MHD energy-bypass system was modeled for use on a supersonic turbojet engine. The model included all components envisioned for an MHD energy-bypass system; two preionizers, an MHD generator, and an MHD accelerator. A thermodynamic cycle analysis of the hypothesized MHD energy-bypass system on an existing supersonic turbojet engine was completed. In addition, a detailed thermodynamic, plasmadynamic, and electromagnetic analysis was combined to offer a single, comprehensive model to describe more fully the proper plasma flows and magnetic fields required for successful operation of the MHD energy bypass system.
The unique contribution of this research involved modeling the current density, temperature, velocity, pressure, electric field, Hall parameter, and electrical power throughout an annular MHD generator and an annular MHD accelerator taking into account an external magnetic field within a moving flow field, collisions of electrons with neutral particles in an ionized flow field, and collisions of ions with neutral particles in an ionized flow field (ion slip). In previous research, the ion slip term has not been considered.
Detailed thermodynamic cycle analysis of an annular MHD generator and an annular MHD accelerator revealed that including the ion slip term to the generalized Ohm's Law decreased the needed magnetic fields and conductivity levels as compared to previous research. For the MHD generator, the needed magnetic fields decreased from 5 T to 3 T for all flight speeds studied (Mach 7, 5, and 3). The conductivity levels required for the ionized airflow within the MHD generator at 3 T decreased from 11 mhos/m to 9 mhos/m for a flight speed of Mach 7 and remained the same for Mach 5 and 3. For the MHD accelerator, the needed magnetic fields decreased from 5 T to 3 T for flight speeds of Mach 7 and 5, and decreased from 3 T to 1.5 T for a flight speed of Mach 3. The conductivity levels required for the ionized airflow within the MHD accelerator (at 3 T) decreased from 2.6 mhos/m to 1.1 mhos/m for a flight speed of Mach 7 and remained the same for Mach 5 and 3.
The MHD energy-bypass system model showed that it is possible to expand the operating range of a supersonic jet engine from a maximum of Mach 3.5 to a maximum of Mach 7. The inclusion of ion slip within the analysis further showed that it is possible to 'drive' this system with maximum magnetic fields of 3 T and with maximum conductivity levels of 11 mhos/m. These operating parameters better the previous findings of 5 T and 10 mhos/m, and reveal that taking into account collisions between ions and neutral particles within a weakly ionized flow provides a more realistic model with added benefits of lower magnetic fields and conductivity levels especially at the higher Mach numbers.