A student from Stornoway has developed an engine concept for supersonic jets with the help of the Innovation Centre at Lews Castle College UHI and had his ideas published in a prestigious scientific journal.

Matthew Murray carried out the research into scramjet engines – which could potentially power an ordinary fixed-wing aircraft into space or shorten journey times between Britain and Australia to two hours – during the final year of his BEng in Mechanical and Energy Engineering.

His project was about how to control complex air flow through the engine and his ideas have been so well received that his paper was published in The Journal of the British Interplanetary Society.

Dr Chris Macleod, founder of the Innovation Centre, said it was “very unusual” for a paper by an undergraduate to be published in a peer-reviewed journal – but added that Matthew had been “an exceptionally good student”. 

The Innovation Centre, which was set up with a £20,000 investment from community wind farm charity Point and Sandwick Trust, offers high-tech research facilities and support to people with entrepreneurial ideas and to students and schoolchildren working on STEM projects. Its purpose is to provide training, advice and development facilities for people who would like to start their own businesses and / or learn more about technology.

Matthew used the facilities, including a 3D printer, to develop his concept and produce a prototype of an external nose cone, which would control air flow through the engine.

His engine concept is called ASPIRE (Air-breathing Supersonic Pellet Injection Rotary Engine) and the purpose of the paper, as Matthew said, was “to present further proof-of-concept results to show the idea is worth pursuing to the experimental verification stage”.

Scramjet engine are more powerful and much faster than commercial engines but work differently because they don’t use turbines. Instead, the shape of the inlet is used to create shockwaves which compress the air, which becomes very hot and pressurised. Fuel pellets are then injected and mix with the compressed air, creating a thrust on the exit of the engine.

Matthew’s research project was about finding a way to slow down the passage of air through the engine, allowing more time for it to mix properly with the fuel. His solution was to create a cone which rotates, shutting off and opening up as it does so and pulsing the air through the engine, thereby regulating the flow.

The idea for the research was devised in collaboration with Dr Chris Macleod and Matthew began working on it in the summer of 2017 and finished it in May 2018. It was published a year later in The Journal of the British Interplanetary Society – the oldest continuously published astronautical journal in the world, first published in 1934.

Dr Macleod said this journal, founded by the early pioneers of British space-science including Arthur C Clarke and Patrick Moore, was “one of the most respected journals in the field” and was “the first place of publication for many of the fundamental ideas in spaceflight”.

Matthew, who went on to do a Masters in Advanced Mechanical with Aerospace Engineering at Strathclyde University this year, said he was “very happy and very surprised at the same time” to have had his paper published in this journal.

He added: “It was a year of work and when I first started it was quite daunting. I thought I did a good job so I’m happy about that.”

Matthew said a lot of credit was due to Dr Macleod and the way the college structures its courses, to provide extensive one-to-one support to students. Combined with his experience at Strathclyde, he now has a broad range of engineering knowledge, from aerospace to mechanical and energy.

Matthew left school “without appropriate qualifications” and began his academic journey with an access course to the NC in Mechanical Engineering.

“At first I just wanted a basic degree to get a job offshore but that changed with things like the gas industry laying off people. My thoughts changed. I thought, ‘right, I need to open my horizons’, so to speak, and that’s when I got into the more research and development side of engineering.”

“It’s been a bit of a turnaround, the past few years… It’s probably quite an unconventional journey for engineering. Most of the people I talk to went straight from school to their degrees. It’s interesting because I never would have seen myself here, especially when I left school. I had no interest in maths or physics in The Nicolson.”

The Innovation Centre is supporting research and development in a range of areas, from Matthew’s supersonic jet engines to disability aids, hydroponics, cosmetics and other products.

It provides a range of sophisticated testing equipment to help people turn concepts into prototypes – just as Matthew has done – and sponsors Point and Sandwick Trust are delighted to see it being put to such good use.

Andrew Mackenzie is a Point and Sandwick Trust board member, a lecturer in engineering at Lews Castle College UHI and Honorary Secretary for the Institution of Engineering and Technology’s Scotland North Local Network.

He welcomed the publication of Matthew’s undergraduate paper and said: “This shows that anything is possible with motivating college staff, the endeavour of bright students and the resources of The Innovation Centre.

“I am proud that Point and Sandwick Trust has the vision and forward thinking to support the future of engineering in the Western Isles by sponsoring the Innovation Centre at Lews Castle College – and that it will continue to do so in following years. The future is bright!”