Will Air Travel Get Faster? Future NASA Planes Could Cross Country in One Hour

A gram of boron nitride nanotubes material costs $1,000—but it could transport you across the country in under an hour.

A collaborative team involving material engineers from NASA and Binghamton University are investigating the mechanical properties of a nanotube—that is, an extremely microscopic tube-shaped structure— made of boron nitride, a combination of boron and nitrogen. In particular, the team wanted to investigate the ability of these structures to withstand heat.  

The study examined whether the properties of the material would change in a high-temperature environment. “We found that there is no change in mechanical properties with boron nitrate nanotubes,” says Changhong Ke, a mechanical engineer at Binghamton University and senior author on the study, published recently in Scientific Reports

The work has a particular relevance to air travel. Currently, certain airplane structures use carbon nanotubes, a strong, lightweight structure that can withstand temperatures up to 450 degrees Celsius. But as this study showed, boron nitride nanotubes, which are similar in function, can withstand 900 degrees Celsius, temperatures that extremely fast airplanes need to be equipped to handle. They are also lighter and better than carbon nanotubes. Planes made from this structure could potentially reach hypersonic speeds, says Ke. 

Hypersonic_Plane 388091 02: FILE PHOTO: An artist's conception of NASA's X-43A Hypersonic Experimental Vehicle, or 'Hyper-X' in flight, in an undated photo. Photo Courtesy of NASA/Newsmakers

These nanotubes are something of a super-material. They are single-dimensional, tubular “nanostructures” that are not very dense and are therefore light. They have a high tensile strength and are chemically and thermally stable.

NASA is now investigating whether these new nanotubes could contribute to the construction of a supersonic plane (the first "a" in NASA is for aeronoautics, after all). Supersonic is fast: 900 to 4,000 miles per hour, versus transonic speeds, classified as 600 to 900 miles per hour. (And beyond supersonic comes hypersonic.) Ke explained that boron nitride nanotubes could be ideal for NASA's supersonic and even hypersonic jets. “For hypersonic technologies, not only does a material need to be light and strong, it needs to survive in high-temperature environments,” says Ke. 

In addition to being used in planes, boron nitride nanotubes could be added them as a filler to ceramic or metals to make them stronger without damaging them. They might also be useful in environmentally-efficient cars and nanoelectronics.

While the price of $1,000 per gram is much too high to invest in for fast airplanes and rockets, economies of scale are at play. If NASA manufactures enough of the better material, the price will go down. And as Ke points out, carbon nanotubes cost about the same in the 1990s. But because they have been manufactured so extensively, high-quality carbon nanotubes now cost about $10-$28 per gram. Ke believes that boron nitride nanotubes could be the standard manufacturing material in airplanes in the next five to ten years.

While we await the future of air travel that lets us cross the country in an hour, we can contemplate all the changes that would bring—no movies, no meals, no hours of missing legroom. But most likely, you'll still have to pay for an extra carry-on. 

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