Transforming Hot Gas into Power: China’s Hypersonic Energy Revolution

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Chinese scientists based in Beijing claim they have created a generator capable of transforming hot gas at hypersonic speeds into a powerful electric current that could power cutting-edge weapons. This electricity could potentially fuel military lasers, microwave weapons, rail guns, and other pulsed energy weapons, as explained by Assistant Researcher Zhang Xiaoyuan and his team at the Institute of Mechanics under the Chinese Academy of Sciences. The technology could also have non-military applications, such as for generating nuclear fusion energy or sending strong SOS signals in emergency situations.

A group of researchers has revealed the potential of a magnetohydrodynamics (MHD) generator for military use. This tubular component streams plasma and collects energy from fast-moving ions, converting it into electricity. The MHD generator produced pulses of electric current reaching up to 212 kilowatts using only a small amount of hypersonic gas, demonstrating its ability to quickly release a substantial burst of energy. This technology addresses some of the biggest challenges faced in developing and utilizing pulsed energy weapons, which unleash bursts of energy to eliminate targets. Conventional combustion methods, such as burning fossil fuels in a jet engine, cannot produce ionized fluids fast enough to generate high-power electricity. Traditional electricity generation typically requires large, complex facilities with generators that contain multiple mechanical components and necessitate frequent maintenance.

The electricity generated in these facilities must be stored in supercapacitors to allow for quick energy release. However, these supercapacitors are often cumbersome and heavy, with repeated usage taking a toll on their intricate, expensive components. In contrast, the MHD generator offers a simple and relatively compact system that can produce high-power electricity. It has a range of distinctive benefits, including the absence of rotating parts, high capacity and efficiency, direct energy transfer to the load without the need for a high-power switch, and quick start-up capabilities. As per the researchers, the generator system could produce 1 gigawatt of electricity from just 177 cubic feet of hypersonic plasma. This technology is essential for the development of large laser weapons, which require a minimum of 1 megawatt of electricity to destroy targets from a distance, as well as China’s high-power microwave weapons, which reportedly need 1 gigawatt of input energy to jam planes and satellites.

Other research efforts have attempted to utilize dynamite to create hypersonic shockwaves for MHD generators, but this method involved large amounts of chemical explosives and was discontinued due to safety concerns, according to Zhang’s team. Converting explosive energy into electricity is not an easy feat, according to a Beijing-based researcher who is not associated with Zhang’s study. The MHD generator functions optimally with gas at high temperatures, but the faster the gas moves, the more quickly it cools. However, Zhang’s team was able to maintain high speeds and temperatures simultaneously, according to the researcher who preferred to remain anonymous due to the sensitivity of the matter. Controlling explosions is a challenging task, and harnessing this extreme process for energy production could bring a positive impact to society, the researcher stated. They added that if this technology is utilized for power generation, society may have the hypersonic weapons to thank.

Mobile platforms like warships, planes, and trucks present several challenges in their ability to host shock devices required for pulsed energy weapons. However, Zhang and team have designed a system that features a shock tunnel constructed of multiple tubes, separated by metallic membranes to control explosions. However, the researcher highlights that frequent reloading of the membranes could prove difficult in combat unless automated. Additionally, the powerful explosion generated may result in loud noise that could reveal the weapon’s position. The generator was tested at a research facility dedicated to hypersonic weapons research, and the institute plays a significant role in China’s hypersonic studies.

China’s hypersonic weapons program was established with the aim of creating missiles capable of surpassing five times the speed of sound and breaching air defense systems. The extensive investment in the program has catalyzed research advancements in a variety of fields, such as new materials, communication technology, and AI. In response, the Chinese government recently introduced a funding policy aimed at boosting scientist participation in hypersonic research and bridging the gap between military and civilian use of the technology.

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