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Scientists in the US have produced a detonation that is fixed in space for the first time. This standing wave detonation was created in a prototype engine and the researchers say that such a system could one day power aircraft at up to 17 times the speed of sound.

Most fires are deflagrations. This form of combustion creates a subsonic reaction wave and powers much of our transport technology. But you can get a much more powerful and efficient release of energy from a detonation. This type of combustion produces supersonic shock waves driven by energy release from closely coupled chemical reactions. These waves travel at many times the speed of sound, with those produced by igniting a hydrogen–air fuel mix, for example, often reaching speeds of Mach 5.

This intense energy release is highly unstable and difficult to control. If harnessed, however, it could be channelled to achieve hypersonic flight for future interplanetary travel and ultrahigh-speed intercontinental travel on Earth. Estimates suggest that an engine operating with a Mach 5 flow path, such as that produced by a hydrogen–air fuel mix, could enable vehicle speeds of Mach 6 to 17. That would allow you to fly from New York to London in just half-an-hour.

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