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Since its inception in 2007, the Bloodhound SSC (supersonic car) project – which will attempt to propel driver Andy Green to speeds in excess of 1,000mph across the desert at Hakskeen Pan in South Africa – has captured the imaginations of millions. Dave Tudor visited the Bloodhound Technical Centre in Bristol for an update on developments.
It would be a gross understatement to suggest that Bloodhound SSC’s project director, evangelist and chief motivator, Richard Noble is something of a household name when it comes to breaking land speed records. In 1983 his Thrust 2 car hit 633mph and later in 1997, Thrust SSC, driven by Andy Green was the first car to break the sound barrier, reaching an incredible 763mph.
Time for action
One day, back in 2007, Messrs Noble and Green found themselves in conversation in with Paul Drayson, then the Minister for Defence Equipment and Support. With the late Steve Fossett planning an 800mph attempt on the Thrust SSC record at that time, an idea began to emerge. Mr Drayson along with Mr Green and Mr Noble were collectively aware of the severe engineering skill shortage that was plaguing Britain. Mr Noble summed up the crisis poignantly describing it as: “Our collective failure to inspire a generation with the belief that they can actually shape the world.”
Elaborating, he continued: “It is quite clear that we are at the dawn of a huge new global industrial revolution and with a chronic shortage of engineers and a banking system suffering from self-inflicted wounds, Britain is not well placed to take part.” What was needed was an iconic project that would relight the fire. Funded entirely through sponsorship from individuals and corporate organisations, that project was Bloodhound SSC. £7 million has been raised (and spent) since 2008 but payment in kind, from companies offering their services, enthusiasm and support for no financial reward is far in excess of this figure.
“Promotion of the STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) is the number one objective of the Bloodhound project,” explains Conor La Grue, head of commercial and product sponsorship. “We’ve been into thousands of schools and educational establishments and the response has been phenomenal. In many ways it’s STEM by stealth – kids may be reluctant to learn maths per se, but packaging it up under the Bloodhound umbrella makes it far more appealing because they can relate and apply it to a real life object. In doing so, they’re learning about some pretty complex subjects like acceleration, deceleration, physics and aerodynamics.”
Visitors to trade shows and exhibitions in recent times (MACH 2102 being a prime example) may well have seen a lifesize model of Bloodhound SSC. Progress on the ‘real’ car however is slowly but surely coming together – making the welcome transition from virtual reality on a CAD screen to a real physical object. By late September 2012, Mr La Grue is confident that the 4.5m lower and upper monocoque sections will be laid up and ready.
At the heart of Bloodhound’s jaw dropping specification is its powerplant comprising three engines: an EJ200 afterburning turbo fan engine as used in the Eurofigher Typhoon producing 90kN of thrust; a hybrid rocket generating 122kN of thrust and a V8 Cosworth F1 engine used to pump one tonne of HTP (High Test Peroxide) in 20 seconds at 42.6 litres per second.
The car itself is 13.4m in length and will reach 1,000mph in 55 seconds producing the equivalent of 135,000bhp. It’ll consume a mile of track in 3.6 seconds with the wheels rotating at 10,200rpm. In layman’s terms that the equivalent of four and a half football pitches in one second or 150m in the blink of an eye. 1,000mph is actually faster than a bullet fired from a .357 Magnum. With such a vast powerplant throbbing away at the back of the car, effective heat management is a primary concern. With this in mind, the rear section is constructed from aerospace grade aluminium and the structural outer skin from titanium sheet. The nose and front end is composite.
Life is all about learning from past experiences and breaking land speed records is no different. Through Thrust 2 and Thrust SSC, the team learnt that significant drag reduction would be key to Bloodhound’s success. “From day one, chief of aerodynamics, Ron Ayers was mindful of this aspect and decided to incorporate a rocket engine into the car,” Mr La Grue affirms. “Thrust SSC had two intakes via its pair of Rolls-Royce Spey engines but rather than sucking in huge amounts of air as you might expect, they actually consumed very little air and created quite a bit of drag. The rocket motor approach produces a far lesser drag penalty.”
On reflection, Mr La Grue is philosophical about the evolution of the design. “I think we all underestimated how difficult it would be to formulate a basic car shape that would be stable at speeds in excess of 1,000mph,” he recalls. “The shape of the car has changed significantly over time and the tail fin in particular has grown in size to compensate for the aerodynamic weight differential between the front and back of the car. But it’s important to remember that we’re breaking new ground here – there was no benchmark around that could advise us on how to safely propel a human being in a car at 1,000mph across a desert in South Africa.”
In good hands
Mr La Grue is keen to emphasise that Bloodhound is very much a team effort from the design and engineering team based at the Bristol technical centre through to the sponsors and contributors who have given up their time and expertise to be part of this iconic project. As a seasoned engineer himself, he fully appreciates that, aside from Richard Noble, a key player in the success of the project is driver Wing Commander Andy Green. In terms of experience, knowledge and a cool head generally, things couldn’t be in better hands. Mr Green’s ‘day job’ is a fighter pilot for the RAF.
“Along with Richard, there’s no better ambassador for Bloodhound than Andy Green,” Mr La Grue enthuses. “He’s a first class honours graduate from Oxford and simply has the ability to process and evaluate incredible amounts of data at a speed far beyond the reach of mere mortals! Let’s not forget that as the driver of Thrust SSC, he’s the fastest man on the planet. Bar none, there’s no-one better qualified anywhere to take Bloodhound through the 1,000mph barrier.”
Every little helps
As a non-profit making venture that relies entirely on sponsorship and donations for funding, the rate of progress is dictated entirely by the money available at the time of need. “As head of commercial sponsorship it’s my job to recruit new sponsors and extend the supply chain as required,” Mr La Grue advises. “It has been challenging at times but we’ve been overwhelmed by the support we’ve received considering when we began, the country was sinking into recession.”
The project is built on firm foundations. Founder sponsors – Swansea University, the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, Serco, the University of the West of England and STP provided initial R&D funding but today the supply chain comprises some 300 companies. The current major sponsor is timing partner Rolex.
The project’s objectives couldn’t be clearer: to create a national surge in the popularity of STEM subjects; to create an iconic project requiring extreme research and technology whilst simultaneously providing the means to enable the student population to join in the adventure; to achieve the first 1,000mph record on land; and to generate substantial and enduring media exposure for sponsors.
Objective number two is particularly worthy of note. Total project transparency has been the order of the day since the project began which is why the Bloodhound website – which gets around 1,500 hits a day – is a veritable treasure chest of information. There are regularly updated online diaries from Andy Green and Richard Noble and a blog from Mr La Grue as well as YouTube videos and sponsor information. Significantly in 2011, 3D development drawings and detailed plans were made available to the public domain.
“In many ways objectives one and two are inextricably linked,” says Mr La Grue. “For kids and the public at large to buy into this, we need to demonstrate total transparency all the way. The culmination of this will be during the record attempt itself. There will be cameras and webcams in the car broadcasting real time footage live from Andy’s cockpit over the Internet. It’ll be a fantastic spectacle!”
On your marks
The green light is looking distinctly possible during 2014 when all eyes will be on the Hakskeen Pan, near Namibia in South Africa. “We hope to have the basic chassis built by the end of 2012 and by early summer 2013 we’ll hopefully be well into system integration,” Mr La Grue reveals. After that we’ll be looking for a UK runway for test runs and trials, but the real challenge for us will be getting to the desert before the weather window closes.”
And that’s because the Hakskeen Pan is what is geologically known as an alkali playa which means it spends some of its life as a shallow lake underwater and the rest as a desert. “When the shallow water evaporates away it leaves a beautifully flat, hard surface with a crusty top layer which will be ideal for Bloodhound’s all solid wheels, but the problem is that it’s only in this state from about April to October – in between it’s a lake so we’ll need to synchronise the final build with this window.”
So what about the attempt itself? Well FIA regulations state that the car must travel a mile, turn around, and then make a return journey. An average speed will be calculated and all this must take place within a one hour timeframe. “The bit in the middle between ‘legs’ is a massive challenge in itself,” Mr La Grue explains. “The car will need to be stopped safely and efficiently, turned around, the jet engine refuelled, the hydrogen peroxide levels replenished, the cooling system checked and the rocket, which would have been burning at 3,000ºC during the first leg, changed. It could all go horribly wrong here – previous record attempts have failed due to problems in the turnaround stage.”
Despite the gargantuan challenges that lie ahead, Mr La Grue is confident that when Andy Green takes his marks on the runway, the project will be a success. “We’ve got some of the best engineering talent available working on Bloodhound both internally and through the supply chain,” he enthuses. “On the day it’ll be down to Andy, the car and lady luck but we’ll have done everything imaginable to ensure he crosses the finish line safely in world record time.”
The Bloodhound project despite fantastic support from its sponsors and the supply chain still has much work to do and many components to make. Interested parties who would like to contribute towards this iconic project are invited to participate in its ‘Design and Make Campaign’ and to get in touch via email@example.com.