Case Study

Reaction Engines – spearheading cleaner flight

It is not just road vehicles that need to be more environmentally-friendly, aviation needs to move away from burning kerosene and embrace sustainable fuel sources.

Reaction Engines is pioneering the move to cleaner flight with its hydrogen-powered SABRE engine. It will be capable of powering a vehicle to five times the speed of sound (Mach 5) in the atmosphere and 25 times the speed of sound for space access.

The vision is the craft could take off and land like a traditional aeroplane so it could be continually reused for faster air travel as well to deliver payloads into space. The revolutionary engine technology is not only attracting backing from venture capitalists, angels and government grants; Rolls Royce, Boeing Horizon X and BAE Systems are among the Culham-based company’s investors.

Precooler proven

Reaction Engines was set up by engineers who had been working in the 1980s at Culham on British attempts to develop a space plane, called HOTOL.  James Barth, Aerospace Engineer at Reaction Engines, reveals that while the engine is probably a decade away from taking to the skies, the company has already taken a massive step forwards in proving that its novel air-cooling system works.

“When you’re travelling at supersonic speed you have the problem that air is very hot and so you can’t compress it, because that would only make it hotter,” he says.

“That’s why our big success to date is to prove the precooler at the front of the engine can cool down air as far as minus 150 degrees centigrade in a fraction of a second. We first proved the technology to low temperature on-site at Culham in 2012, and more recently proved it could cool air coming in at Mach 5 equivalent conditions in our Denver-based bespoke test facility.”

Thermal management

Cooling down air allows it to be compressed to aid combustion of the hydrogen fuel the engine will run on. In fact, the compressor used in the engine will be powered by the energy released as the air cools. It is this heat exchanger technology which Reaction Engines believes will lead to the company beginning to earn revenue in the next one to two years.

“We have a lot to offer any company working with thermal management issues because we can take that heat away using heat exchangers that are lighter and more compact, without sacrificing performance” he says.

“We’re talking to motor sport companies who are interested in how our heat exchangers might improve the performance of their engines to achieve better lap times. We’re also discussing with energy companies how we could reclaim waste heat to make their operations far more efficient.”

Reaction Engines believes that these and other uses of its heat exchanger technology will help the green recovery in the short-term before the longer-term dream of a reusable space plane powered by hydrogen takes to the skies, and beyond.

About this case study - Powering up for the Green Recovery: Oxfordshire's role in building a cleaner future

This case study was written following an interview conducted as part of Advanced Oxford’s research study, Powering up for the Green Recovery: Oxfordshire’s role in building a cleaner future. Advanced Oxford has been examining the enablers and barriers to growth of the low carbon and sustainable goods and services sectors. We are both showcasing innovation being developed across the region, but also looking at the issues which will support or hinder our high growth potential companies.

Advanced Oxford would like to thank all of the companies that participated in this project for their time and for providing us with images which illustrate their technology and work. This case study was written by Sean Hargrave, working with Advanced Oxford.

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