Blood on the tracks

Britain’s latest assault on the world land speed record is an epic adventure designed to do nothing less than reignite the country’s love for engineering.

If all goes to plan, some time in 2011 a British-built supercar called Bloodhound will become the fastest thing on four wheels, reaching a top speed of 1,000mph.

One thousand miles per hour. It’s hard to picture that sort of velocity. But this might help: imagine opening up Wembley and constructing a road through its length. If you were to blink at the moment the car entered the stadium you would not even see it. Bloodhound would be gone before your eyes reopened. A true case of blink and you miss it.

This is an astounding prospect which will require Britain’s best minds working flat out to make it a reality. Can it be done? Well, the men leading the mission do have something of a track record when it comes to, well, track records.

Project director Richard Noble was the man behind both Thrust2, which brought the world land speed record back to Britain in 1983, and the ThrustSSC, which achieved the first-ever supersonic land speed record 14 years later. The driver of the ThrustSSC, fighter pilot Andy Green, will be in the hotseat of the Bloodhound too.

Yet even for acceleration experts like Richard and Andy this presents a massive challenge. The target speed is nearly a third faster than their previous record. For that matter it is faster than the world air speed record for low altitudes, which stands at 994 mph. And they’re proposing to beat that on the ground.

Which prompts the obvious question: why?

The answer goes beyond the usual “because it’s there” of adventure cliché. It is a project of truly epic ambition.

“This is not an Edwardian racer out for a boy’s thrill - this is a very carefully constructed programme to inspire and encourage the next generation of engineers,” Richard Noble says. Different teams will deploy their expertise and skills on the land speed record attempt, and share their work with the world on the Internet.

By doing so Bloodhound SSC will be on track to meet its principal objectives: to create a national surge in the popularity of the STEM subjects, science, technology, engineering and mathematics; and to create a landmark project requiring extreme research and technology while enabling students to join in the adventure.

It was science minister Lord Drayson who recognised that an iconic engineering feat was required to reignite interest in the profession. And Richard sees the project as particularly timely as we face an uncertain future.

“One area of huge interest due to global warming is the redesign and manufacture of almost all of the world’s infrastructure, from utilities to transport - everything has to be redesigned and replaced with low carbon alternatives.

“The changes are huge and the engineering challenge represents a new industrial revolution.”

Britain kick-started the last such revolution, he says. But if it is to play a major part in the next one it will need to rekindle interest in engineering. 

Bloodhound's aerodynamicist Ben Evans says the project is the perfect vehicle for doing just that, in every sense of the word. “British design doesn’t seem to have the iconic engineering landmarks it used to have - things like Concorde and the Spitfire, vehicles that young people look at and go: ‘Wow! How does that work?’

“If Bloodhound throws down the gauntlet and generates the 1,000mph land speed record then it will be an iconic vehicle and inspire people.”

He admits to being nervous when the plan went public last autumn. “The whole aim is to get people interested in science and engineering. There was the danger, especially in the economic climate, that people would ask: why are you doing it? But the unanimous response has been that this is a fantastic thing for the UK to be involved in.”

Working on the project is something of a dream come true for Ben, whose life-long fascination with how things work led him first to Cambridge, where he studied Aerospace and Aerothermal Engineering, then to Swansea University and a PhD in computational fluid dynamics (CFD).

“The effects of the airflow going over the car are going to be huge,” he explains. Bloodhound will travel faster than the speed of sound - at mach 1.4. This will created a big pressure wall in front of the car. Shockwaves created by supersonic aircraft dissipate in the atmosphere, but what his team have to understand are the likely effects of the shockwave hitting the ground only inches below the vehicle.

“We’ve got to the point where we have a vehicle that we believe would do the job of reaching 1,000mph combined with being safe and remaining on the ground - not turning into a plane,” Ben says.

The team's CFD data has shaped the car. But there is only so much that can be achieved through virtual modelling, even that created on a super computer.

“CFD can give you a very good idea. But even if all the computations say yes, the reality is there are a lot of unknowns until we take this car to the desert and try it out.”

Creating a 1,000mph car is testing many engineering disciplines to the limit. As well as the aerodynamicists, there are structural, aerospace and automotive engineers taking part, based around the country.

Every so often the team leaders meet up. “When we get together for our design meetings they’re long and at times stressful. But it’s an incredible amount of fun, designing the fastest car in the world.”

Ben’s sure that such cutting-edge work will create unforeseen benefits. One of his team is studying the movement of particles in aerodynamic flows, vital to predict the effects of dust from the desert road on Bloodhound’s performance. But this work may yet help to create safer landings for aircraft on wet runways.

And there’s that green mission too. All involved in Bloodhound are aware of the project’s carbon footprint. But Ben is hopeful it will ultimately be a positive influence on the health of the planet. “We’ll inspire a lot of young people to become engineers. Ultimately they’re going to be the people who solve the problem of creating a low-carbon world.”

For now, though, they’re all concentrating on getting Bloodhound off the drawing board and onto the road, with a prototype rolling out of the hangar at the end of this year or the beginning of next.

“Having spent two years now with this car just on my computer screen, to see that evolve into something that’s 13 metres long roll out of a hangar will be an incredible moment,” says Ben.

It may be new technology which will power Bloodhound but this is an old fashioned adventure, something which could have appeared in the pages of The Eagle. So it seems only fitting to offer the team the very best of British.

How to get involved

Everyone can watch the work on Bloodhound unfold. “The fantastic thing about the land speed record is it’s a very open build,” says Ben Evans. “It’s not like Formula 1, where all the technology is very concealed. Everything we do is available for people to watch on the website.

“We go out and talk about everything we are doing. That’s key to its success. It’s a terrific, exciting, high-end engineering project which is at the same time completely open. The technology is there for people to see.”

But if you want to do more than just watch, you can. The Bloodhound@Universities website was launched this year. It is designed to enable interaction between the Bloodhound project, university students and academics.

The site will make information available about the car, the project, the design challenges and the successes, for use by staff and students at universities in teaching, projects and other activities.

And it is interactive. As the home page states: “We also plan to provide information on current problems and challenges facing the project - and would invite you to contribute to solving these problems if you are able.”

Ben suggests that interested students begin by ensuring their university is affiliated with Bloodhound. Among other benefits, this will allow them to take part in future web conferences.

The first of these linked the Universities of Swansea, Southampton and the West of England for a lecture on aerodynamic modelling, where students from the different sites could ask questions.

It is a unique opportunity to provide engineering and technology undergraduates and post-graduates with access to real design challenges and test data as Britain’s most ambitious engineering project develops.

To get started, visit the University of the West of England.

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