Hypersonic tunnel
Hypersonic tunnel Screengrab from CCTV video

It is a great time to be alive for sci-fi fans as most of the futuristic technologies that they have imagined are now coming to real life. However, the same is true for weapons and mediums of mass destruction, as science always has two sides to it.

The great news is that China is building the fastest wind tunnel in the world, capable of simulating hypersonic flight with speed going up to 12 kilometres per second. Hypersonic aircrafts are vehicles which fly at Mach 5 speed, that is five times the speed of sound. The catch is that such a technology can be easily used to hamper world peace.

A vehicle flying at hypersonic speed through this wind tunnel will take less than 14 minutes to reach the United States west coast from China. Currently, the fastest wind tunnel at New York's LENX-X facility offers the speed of 10 kilometres per second, which is 30 times the speed of sound.

Zhao Wei, a senior scientist on this project, says that researchers are attempting to bring the tunnel to a running condition by 2020, which will highly boost China's hypersonic weapons development program, reports South China Morning Post.

"It will boost the engineering application of hypersonic technology, mostly in military sectors, by duplicating the environment of extreme hypersonic flights, so problems can be discovered and solved on the ground," said Zhao, who is also the deputy director of the State Key Laboratory of High Temperature Gas Dynamics at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing.

Before making the wind tunnel active, ground tests will be carried out to eliminate the risk of failure.

Previous attempts

The race for hypersonic vehicles is such that many countries have earlier participated in it, including Russia, India, Australia, China and the US.

HTV-2, an unmanned aircraft travelling at Mach 20 speed, was tested by the US military in 2011. However, it crashed into the Pacific Ocean soon after launch.

China has also conducted seven test flights of hypersonic glider WU-14 or DF-ZF, which flies at speeds between Mach 5 and Mach 10.

"China and the US have started a hypersonic race," said Wu Dafang, a professor at the School of Aeronautic Science and Engineering at Beihang University in Beijing and an award-winning hypersonic vehicles expert. He also said that there are numerous wind tunnels in China which ensure the success of its hypersonic weapon tests.

The technology behind hypersonic travel

China will be creating a test chamber large enough for aircrafts with a three-meter wingspan. In it, several tubes having a mixture of oxygen, hydrogen and nitrogen will be present, causing a series of explosions large enough to discharge one-gigawatt power in a second, says Zhao.

The shock waves created by the explosions will be channeled into the test chamber through a metal tunnel. Then it will cover the prototype vehicle, bringing its temperature up to 8,000 Kelvin or 7,727 degrees Celsius, which is 50 percent hotter than the Sun's surface.

The vehicle must be coated by a highly efficient coolant to prevent it from disintegration. A new jet engine is also in the process of being made to enable such a journey.

If the technology manages to work perfectly, one-hour flights to any place in the world will become a reality.