A team from Qinetiq in Farnborough is developing a scramjet component which may one day help air travellers get to the other side of the world in just a few hours.

The team, under the direction of Dr Terry Cain, has been working for six years on the "combustor" and intake, essential parts of the engine.

The intakes have been extensively tested in Qinetiq's wind tunnel, and the combuster has been tested in the University of Queensland's shock tunnel, but to check them out in the atmosphere, the component was recently put on trial over the Australian desert as part of the Hyshot international space project. It was fitted to a Terrier/Orion rocket and programmed to activate during descent with data transmitted to ground control.

The scramjet, short for supersonic combustion ramjet, can travel at about eight times the speed of sound and could potentially cut flight times from London to Sydney to two hours. Unlike conventional rockets, which need to carry their oxygen with them, the scramjet uses specially shaped intakes to ram air into an ignition chamber. Then it injects the engine with hydrogen fuel which ignites and generates thrust at speeds of up to Mach eight-one and a half miles a second.

Dr Cain said that no one was actually building a scramjet airplane yet, but different aspects of the technology were being developed in various places. No one knows if such an aircraft will ever be financially viable.

Qinetiq's role in the recent Australian flight test was to determine the aerodynamics of the scramjet/booster combination and predict its behaviour during the descent.

Qinetiq may fly its own engine (pictured above) next year.