A Tucson-based startup is in the thick of a race to develop a new kind of jet engine that promises greater power and fuel efficiency for power generation and aerospace propulsion.
And Nobel Works Corp. has attracted some significant backing and reported promising results in its quest to commercialize its version of the so-called rotating detonation engine.
Such engines generate more power for their size and theoretically can achieve up to 25% greater efficiency than conventional turbine engines.
But although research has accelerated in recent years and prototypes have been built for testing, scientists have yet to develop a commercial version.
Founded in 2021 by former Raytheon engineer James Villarreal and three former Raytheon colleagues, Nobel Works is now testing a small prototype of its engine as part of a development program under Shell Energy’s GameChanger business accelerator program for early-stage tech startups.
In December, the Air Force Research Laboratory awarded Nobel Works a Small Business Innovation Research contract to use the company’s rotational detonation engine to test a key subsystem.
While the Air Force, NASA and aerospace companies are studying similar technologies for propulsion systems, Villarreal says his company is initially focused on developing engines to generate electrical power more efficiently, particularly a drop-in replacement for current gas-fired combustion chambers used to drive generators in power plants.
As part of the Shell GameChanger program, Nobel Works has successfully tested its engine using hydrogen fuel and recently began long-duration testing of its engine after completing its second milestone review.
“Especially with the emergence of ‘green’ hydrogen or different fuels, being able to save an appreciable amount of fuel is a big driver to reduce CO2 but also a big way to save money in your wallet – a little bit of efficiency variance is a big deal,” Villarreal said.
The company’s engine tech would also save fuel as well as precious weight in aerospace and defense applications, said Villarreal, whose 12 years at Raytheon included stints as a senior propulsion engineer, program manager and supply-chain program associate director.
Villareal, who received degrees in aerospace, aeronautical and astronautical engineering from Arizona State University, culminating with a Ph.D. in 2011, said he always kept his eye on emerging technology for rotating detonation engines and some new research in the past five years or so showed him it could work.
“I felt the time was near and it was time to start a company and accelerate that development,” he said.
Villarreal enlisted three former Raytheon colleagues as co-founders: Brad Goodman, the company’s chief technology officer, who spent more than 12 years at Raytheon as a design engineer; Thomas McIntyre, chief business and financial officer and a former Raytheon program manager; and Rick Nelson, chief operating officer and a retired Raytheon vice president.
Though “rotating detonation” it may sound a little scary, Villarreal says it’s simply a form of supersonic combustion in which fuel ignites in a continuous series of pulsed detonations along a circular channel. Conventional gas turbine engines continually burn fuel and compressed air in a combustion chamber.
Nobel Works’ technology introduces a supersonic shockwave that, under the right geometry, fuel pressure and electronic controls keep feeding the shockwave so it continues to combust at supersonic speeds.
“Normally when you burn stuff, it just gets hot,” Goodman said. “This thermodynamic process actually increases the pressure so there is more work available for the same amount of fuel.”
Nobel Works says it has demonstrated fuel savings of 15%, but 25% is possible with its engine. For aerospace applications, such increased fuel efficiency can translate into longer range.
Compared with normal combustion engines, the detonation technology also drastically reduces nitrous oxides – a major pollutant of fossil-fuel power plants – compared with conventional combustion, Goodman said.
“That’s a secondary benefit, in our eyes, but a lot of customers might view that as a primary solution,” he said.
Nobel Works hopes to raise seed funding to fund the construction of a self-contained micro-turbine generating unit powered by the company’s technology, said McIntyre.
“Obviously, long term we’d like to scale that technology and increase the size but, you know, crawl, walk run … when you start smaller, you reduce your technical risks to a certain extent and then also the capital risks because the bigger these are, the more expensive they become,” McIntyre said. “And, you know, we really are focused on proving out the technology to create that self-contained unit that generates electricity.”
The company says results so far are promising.
Nobel Works has been test-firing its engine at desert facilities operated by Marana-based R3 Aerospace, a rocket-development business founded by retired Raytheon propulsion engineer Rick Loehr, under a teaming agreement the two companies announced in October.
In a recent test firing, the Nobel Works crew ran its prototype engine on a hydrogen fuel mix for 75 seconds – until it ran out of fuel, Goodman said during an interview at the company’s small lab and headquarters in a historic building downtown on North Seventh Avenue.
That compares favorably with research conducted by NASA, which in January announced that scientists at its Marshall Space Flight Center had run a rotational detonation engine for 10 minutes over a dozen firings, and surpasses academic and other private research efforts to date, McIntyre said.
“Just being able to get that detonation wave started and keeping it going with is a big deal, even for a second, and we’ve now surpassed some pretty big run times ourselves, even just yesterday,” Villarreal said, citing recent testing.
Still, there are some heavy hitters involved in rotational detonation engine tech, particularly for aerospace applications, including the Air Force Research Lab and partners Raytheon, General Electric and Aerojet, a major military rocket-engine maker.
In March 2022, the Air Force Research Laboratory has awarded Raytheon’s Pratt & Whitney business unit a contract for a ground-test demonstration program using a rotating engine detonation concept to be jointly developed by Pratt & Whitney, Tucson-based Raytheon Missiles & Defense and the Raytheon Technologies Research Center.
The Pentagon is interested in rotating detonation engines to enable a new generation of missiles to fly farther and faster since fuel efficiency translates into longer ranges.
Last July, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency or DARPA unveiled its “Gambit” project to develop rotational detonation engines to power long-range strike missiles over two 18-month project phases culminating with a flight test.
Nobel Work can’t talk in detail about its work under the recent Air Force SBIR, except that it involves the engine’s ignition subsystem, which essentially starts the engine.
Villarreal said he hopes will result in a follow-on SBIR award later this year.
While it may be down the road, Nobel Works’ compact engines could also have future applications as part of hybrid electric drive systems for transportation, for example.
“You would have a small, like a tiny turbine and then you would use that to charge a generator which charges batteries for long durations,” he said. “So that can be used in ships, trains, cars, long transportation anything that burns fuel, we can just burn it more efficiently.”