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A pulse detonation engine, fueled by ethylene and air, fires on a test stand at a General Electric research center. (GE Propulsion Systems Lab)

Son of a Buzz Bomb

An engine with a checkered past is the power of the future.

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That five percent in fuel savings is the tantalizing prospect that drives Dean and his colleagues, as well as his rivals in Seattle and at Pratt & Whitney’s home base in East Hartford, Connecticut. The two engine makers, along with the third major manufacturer, British-based Rolls-Royce, all see the end of the jet engine as we know it. To be sure, there’s debate about the pace of that change. Pratt & Whitney’s Austin cautions that no one should be ready to count out the modern aircraft gas turbine engine just yet. He believes that there are still efficiencies to be gained in how the engines are fitted to and optimized for air vehicles, and in how the components go together.

But most engineers agree that while it may not happen today, or tomorrow, or even next year, it’s coming as surely as the automobile put the horse-drawn buggy out of business. And that’s why they’re all working so hard to find ways to bring pulse detonation technology out of the realm of scientific papers and into the working world.

While U.S. funding may have slowed, that’s not true everywhere. Dean recently spoke at a conference in Reno, Nevada, sponsored by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics , and he was surprised to see that 45 papers on pulse detonation engines were presented. The sessions were well attended, and Dean saw many familiar faces in the crowd —colleagues from Lockheed Martin, Boeing, and others long involved in some aspect of high-speed flight research.

But “there’s clearly a bunch of new people looking at it for the first time,” he says. “I think what surprised me was the level of interest from Japan. We’re doing good work [in computational fluid dynamics], [but] their level of prediction for detonation phenomena was just terrific.” What do those “new people” see? Quite possibly, the engine cycle that will power the next 100 years of flight. No one wants to be left out this time around.

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