Explosive detonations at speeds faster than current theories predict have been shown to be possible in a powerful new computer simulation developed by a physical chemist and an aerospace engineer at Penn State. James B. Anderson, Evan Pugh Professor of Chemistry and Physics, and Lyle N. Long, Professor of Aerospace Engineering, say their simulation points the way toward the production of ultrafast detonations, which could lead to innovative propulsion systems for space travel and a better understanding of detonations in general, including those that occur at supersonic speeds in the tunnels of underground mines.
With the aid of an innovative chemical model supported by powerful computers, the researchers show that burning particles of highly reactive gas set on fire by an explosive shock wave can leap out in front of the wave and ride it like a surfer, sparking reactions in advance of the wave itself. "All the textbooks say that the velocity of a detonation in a reactive gas mixture can be no faster than the speed of sound in the hot burning gases, but our model shows this assumption may no longer be correct," says Anderson, whose paper is published in the current issue of the Journal of Chemical Physics (volume 118, issue 7, page 3102).
According to the previous prevailing theory, a detonation occurs when a shock wave from an explosion first blasts its way through a reactive gas, heating it until it ignites, then causing a chemical reaction that continues to power the explosive wave forward. The chemical reaction, which proceeds at a slower speed behind the initial shock wave, was thought to be limited to the speed of sound in the hot gases. "Previous models did not predict ultrafast, supersonic detonations, in which the explosion can move even faster than a shock wave in the hot gases," Anderson says.
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