Here in the UK, we’re pretty good at engineering triumphs. We built the first 30-metre long cast iron bridge (in Iron Bridge- hey, I never said we were creative on naming cities), designed the Rolls-Royce Trent engine and have created a light source in Oxford that’s so bright you can use it for nanoanalysis. We’re also pretty good at speeding. The Bloodhound project operates out of a factory on the West Coast of England, which is kind of like the West Coast of America only there is less sunshine and more boarded up shop fronts. I’m at Bloodhound with Katherine, an eloquent year 11 student studying for her GCSEs (and AS Japanese) at school in Bristol. She’s been selected by the Smallpeice Trust to represent the UK at all all girl science conference this summer in Japan. Katherine’s a determined lady; choosing Physics, Maths, Further Maths, Chinese, Russian and Japanese for A-Level. She makes me feel like I spent three years on a Media Studies degree.
The Bloodhound project are taking their rocket car to South Africa this year, in an attempt to break the current land speed record of 763 mph. Hankseenpan in South Africa is so flat the height doesn’t change by more than 40 cm across 12 miles, the crust is so hard the metal-tyres don’t leave a mark and the temperature can vary between -6 and 45 °C. To make sure we give the record our best attempt, over 120 days 317 local people cleared 6,000 rocks off the surface. After cruising at a mere 800 mph in South Africa, the super-sonic British beast will be shipped off to Nevada, Las Vegas. After eight years of research and ingenious engineering (and £ 40 million of corporate sponsorship), Bloodhound are still 5 % away from being complete. Rob, the ‘chief inspirer’ at Bloodhound, is just about the most excitable and patriotic person I’ve ever met. He thinks his home in Avonmouth is like a Willy Wonka factory of Engineering- home to science fact that is better than science fiction.
A man called Richard Noble had dreamed of breaking the land-speed record since he was born in 1956. In 1976 he built the £1,500 Thrust 1, which was essentially a second-hand Rolls-Royce jet engine attached to a Meccano car. In 1977 he launched Thrust 1 down RAF Fairford’s runway, suffering a catastrophic loss of control at 140 mph and being thrown out of the vehicle. Noble was determined to beat the American land-speed record (536 mph) and placed an advert in the newspaper looking for car designers- and drivers. Noble had no money, no tools, no workshop, no team, no experience and one second-hand lightning engine. Noble did find a design engineer and rented a derelict kitchen on the Isle of Wight for £5/ a week. It turns out, the IoW is the right place to build a rocket car. Even though the nearest photocopier was a six-mile walk from the kitchen/workshop, the IoW boasted an aircraft industry that could launch satellites into space. The workshop (and team) expanded, moving from £1 club memberships to a particularly strange deal with BA where no money officially traded hands but used flight tickets were swapped for cash. By late September 1983 Thrust 2 had reached 633.468 mph. Why did Noble want to crack the land speed record?
“For Britain, and for the hell of it”
Richard Noble is still leading the 2016 team. Today, the engineering in the Bloodhound is beyond incredible. They’ve worked with over 350 firms to create a 92-person team of cutting-edge researcher scientists alongside military engineers from the Army and the RAF. For the low-speed work in the UK, we’ve refashioned ultra-thin rubber wheels from old lightning fighter jets, whereas for high speeds we’ll be turning to solid aluminium discs that each weigh 95 kg and spin 170 times a second. The car has engines, components and hydraulics from some of the biggest names in motor sports: Jaguar, Rolls Royce and Castrol, who have fashioned one jet engine (classic) and a cluster rocket engine (made-up of 3 components). Just in case any of the South Africans have left a pebble behind, the Kevlar coated carbon body is designed to survive impacts at 2000 mph. In 17 seconds it will compress 1 tonne of hydrogen peroxide fuel. The Bloodhound car will go from 0 – 1000 mph in 55 seconds, after which it will experience 20 tonnes of drag.
Katherine and I weren’t just there to hear about the car but also to build our own foam model which was launched (by a mini rocket ‘cluster’) across a car park in Avonmouth. So, somewhere in a warehouse in Bristol I realised I should probably have studied engineering at university. I should have been building rocket engines not learning the equations that keep them in flight. I’m not sure whether it was the kids or the parents who were more excited by the rocket car or our resident inspirer (although I’m pretty sure it was me) but everyone left with a spring in their step and a fire in their engine.