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Air Force print news (Nov. 12, 2004): Air Force's future 'invented' at Research Lab.

WASHINGTON -- It still may be a little too soon for Star Trek's "beam me up, Scotty" technology, but Air Force scientists and engineers are trying to narrow the gap between science fiction and science fact.

The Air Force Research Laboratory at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, recently published the results of a study on the feasibility of teleportation physics. The study looked at scientific and engineering literature worldwide to determine the practicality of advanced research into the disembodied transport of people or inanimate objects from point to point across space.

While the study indicates science and technology are not quite ready for teleportation, Col. Michael Heil, chief of AFRL's propulsion directorate, said the Air Force is not about to quit looking to the future.

"I think it's premature to discount the basic research into promising technologies," he said. "We keep our fingers on the pulse of science at all times, so it's a continual process by our scientists and engineers to stay up to date in following the technical literature and looking for breakthroughs in physics and other sciences."

Some technological breakthroughs spend many years making the transition from concept to reality. One example is the pulse-detonation engine, where the air and fuel mixture is detonated rather than allowed to simply burn.

"The concept, thermodynamically, has been around for many years, but no one had been able to make the concept work until we took it into the laboratory here," Heil said. "We have shown we can produce thrust from a pulse-detonation engine."

The colonel said a PDE has been installed on an aircraft and has successfully completed taxi testing. "That's an example of a technology that has payoffs in terms of efficiency of producing thrust, particularly in the supersonic regime," he said.

Another promising propulsion technology involves the manufacture of unique molecules.

"We actually have chemists who will theoretically design high-energy molecules on their computers, then go into the laboratory and synthesize those molecules," Heil said. "The [chemists] have invented new nitrogen ions. We're doing advanced research to see if these new compounds and materials have payoffs for rocket propulsion. Sometimes efficiencies are at least twice [that of] current rocket fuels and oxidizers."

Heil admitted that AFRL scientists and engineers occasionally have to deal with the "giggle factor" when looking into new concepts.

"Sometimes things start to look like science fiction, like Star Trek," he said. "We don't fund science fiction in AFRL, we only fund legitimate science that has potential payoff for the Air Force. However, it is our job to look far out into the future to pursue promising areas of science and look at high-payoff, high-risk technologies."

Heil said the Flash Gordon ray gun was one of those onetime giggle factor ideas. That science fiction has been turned into science fact in the form of laser technology, which currently has military, medical, and commercial application.

The colonel pointed to the very basis of the Air Force--the airplane--as justification for pursuing far-out technological concepts.

"We are a high-tech Service," he said. "We were born of technology when the airplane was invented. We always push the edge in terms of embracing technology and being on the cutting edge.

"We have brilliant people [at AFRL] who are inventing the future of the Air Force," he said.

Master Sgt. Scott Elliott, USAF
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Title Annotation:In the News; Air Force Research Laboratory
Author:Elliott, Scott
Publication:Defense AT & L
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 1, 2005
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