Solving the combustion challenge for the jet engine
The jet engine is undoubtedly one of the single most important innovations in the history of aviation, transforming flight and making fast, efficient intercontinental travel a reality for hundreds of millions of travellers each year.
In the UK, work on the development of the jet engine was led by Sir Frank Whittle. The former Royal Air Force pilot was obsessed with the idea of using the gas turbine engine to power aircraft to make them faster and fly higher than the best-in-class propeller-driven models of the time.
Incredible design and material innovations were central to the development of Whittle’s first jet engine, simply designated the W1. However, a partnership with Shell combustion experts made an essential contribution to the first British jet aircraft, the single-engined Gloster E28/39, which took to the skies on 15 May 1941.
A key figure in Whittle’s team was Isaac Lubbock, seconded from Shell. Working with a team of Shell engineers, Lubbock was seeking to increase the efficiency of fuel combustion.
Despite a long series of trials, the stable, intense combustion required proved difficult and held up the progress of the engine’s development. It was Lubbock’s team that came up with an atomising solution and combustion ceased to be a problem according to Whittle, who was quoted as saying: “The introduction of the Shell system may be said to mark the point where combustion ceased to be an obstacle of development.”
Although military jets, such as the Gloster Meteor and Messerschmitt Me 262, had only a limited impact on the outcome of the Second World War, the invention of the jet engine ushered in a new era of civil aircraft development, democratising air travel and was arguably the most important development in the creation of the modern aviation industry.
Isaac Lubbock’s legacy continues to this day, with several key features he introduced still seen in almost every turbojet engine combustion system in service.