Published: March 30, 2022 By

Hypersonic vehicle rendering
Rendering of a hypersonic vehicle in flight. Iain Boyd is leading a five-year, $7.5 million Department of Defense MURI grant to advance the science of hypersonics.

The University of Colorado Boulder has received a five-year, $7.5 million grant to advance the science of hypersonic flight.

Iain Boyd, a professor in the Ann and H.J. Smead Department of Aerospace Engineering Sciences and the director of the Center for National Security Initiatives at CU Boulder, is leading the Multidisciplinary University Research Initiative (MURI) from the Department of Defense.

The grant will investigate plasma that forms around sub-orbital vehicles traveling at hypersonic speeds, which can cause radio communication blackouts and impacts aerothermal heating.

“This is a major funding opportunity from the Department of Defense,” Boyd said. “This is fundamental research motivated by national security. We don’t understand how plasma forms at these specific speeds. Plasma also forms around vehicles coming back from space, and we know quite well how that happens, but there’s this new class of hypersonic vehicles. They’re fast, but not as fast as when you come back from space, and it turns out we don’t understand how plasma forms there.”

Hypersonics is an active area of research around the world for national defense purposes. Both China and Russia have successfully introduced hypersonic weapons. The U.S. has not. Boyd views the development of hypersonic weapons as necessary to ensuring parity with other national defense forces.

“For decades we led hypersonics research, but in the last 10 years, China and Russia have leapt ahead,” Boyd said. “Both say they have hypersonic weapons fielded, meaning somebody can push a button and fire one. We don’t have that in the U.S.”

During hypersonic flight, the temperature of air and other gases around a vehicle can reach thousands of degrees, triggering chemical reactions. The research at CU Boulder will investigate the breakdown and collisions of nitrogen, oxygen, and carbon molecules in this environment using advanced computational modeling and experimental tests with molecular beams, shock tubes and hypersonic wind tunnels.

“It will probably take a year just to do experiments on nitrogen and oxygen atoms,” Boyd said. “It takes a lot of time to set these experiments up and do these computations. We want to know how, when and why this plasma forms to build up our ability to predict it.”

Joining in the research are aerospace faculty members Robyn Macdonald, whose efforts are concentrated on computational analysis, and Tim Minton, who is focused on molecular experiments to validate the computational research.

“I am excited about the opportunity to push the frontier and understand these collisional processes that have never before been studied and to contribute to the development of practical modeling tools in the field of hypersonics,” Minton said.

The research grant includes multiple universities in the U.S. and around the world. University of New Mexico, Ohio State University, Stanford University and Oxford University in England are all part of the project.

“This work brings together a team of researchers with broad expertise in experiments and modeling at different scales to tackle an important problem of plasma generation in hypersonic flows,” Minton said. “Our interdisciplinary team is uniquely qualified to do this.”

Boyd notes the partnership with Oxford is a testament to the importance of the research to both the United States and our allies.

“The British government has agreed to fund the work at Oxford,” Boyd said. “Essentially, the U.S. government is leveraging British resources and the British government is leveraging U.S. resources. I think this is very unusual.”

The grant, titled Development of Validated Hypersonic Plasma Kinetics Models Including Atomic Excitation, is one of 28 MURI awards announced by the Department of Defense. They were chosen from 340 applications submitted for fiscal year 2022.