A numerical modeling tool allows for a better understanding of rotating detonation engines (RDEs).

This three-dimensional numerical simulation captures complex combustion dynamics in a realistic, non-premixed, rotating detonation engine configuration. (Image: Argonne National Laboratory)

Unlike conventional gas turbine engines that rely on subsonic constant pressure combustion, RDEs leverage high-intensity, self-sustaining detonation — a supersonic reaction wave coupled with a shock — to rapidly consume the fuel-air mixture, typically in a ring-shaped, cylindrical chamber.

With RDEs, there is an effective pressure gain: The intense and rapid energy release from detonation can be used to generate extremely high thrust from a relatively small combustor. In addition, these engines are compact, contain no moving parts, are more efficient than conventional combustion systems, provide steady thrust at high frequencies, and can be integrated with existing aircraft and rocket engine hardware.

Despite their potential benefits, practical implementation of RDEs has been elusive. The combustion behavior must be studied and optimized over a large design space for the technology to become practically viable.

Previous numerical simulations gave researchers fundamental insights into the combustion phenomena occurring in RDEs but they were computationally very expensive, precluding rigorous studies over a wide range of operating conditions. The new computational fluid dynamics (CFD) model predicts the combustion behavior of RDEs in realistic configurations at a reasonable cost. The team demonstrated that the CFD model can capture RDE combustion dynamics under varying operating conditions.

The model can be used to quickly generate simulation data over a large design space, which can then be coupled with advanced machine-learning-based techniques to rapidly optimize the combustor design.

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