Roger Whittle’s Amazing Invention – the Jet Engine
The successful development of British-born Roger Whittle’s amazing invention, the jet turbine engine was integrally linked to Inco’s metallurgical expertise with high temperature nickel alloys.
In the early 1940s, at the request of Britain’s Air Ministry, company scientists worked furiously to solve the problem of appropriate materials for emerging designs in jet and gas turbine engines. The Germans were also working on their own version of a jet engine the Messerschmitt Me 262.
One of the most noted contributions during the war was the invention of a new alloy for jet-propelled aircraft engines by International Nickel metallurgists from the Henry Wiggin & Company Ltd. facilities in Birmingham.
This new alloy called “Nimonic 80” allowed the jet engine’s turbine parts, particularly the blades, to operate for long periods under tremendous stress, high heat and corrosive exhaust without deforming or melting. This new alloy was superior to German aircraft technology. The first British airplane outfitted with the new engine was the Meteor which first flew in 1943 and was finally approved for the air force in July, 1944.
The RAF Meteor squadrons were mostly used to counter the threat from the 7,000 V1 flying bombs that Germany fired across the English Channel at Britian. The Meteors could achieve a top speed of 480 m.p.h. This speed was fast enough to allow the Meteors to fly alongside the V1s and ‘knock’ them out of the sky by using their wing tips to flip the rockets on their backs.
After the war, the “Numonic 80” nickel alloy set the stage for a revolution in jet propelled aviation. Inco research scientists would go on to be responsible with the development of about 80 per cent of the specialized nickel-based super-alloys that are used in jet engines today.
At the time, the company was one of the globe’s leading copper suppliers. From the start of the war International Nickel supplied about 80 per cent of its electrolytic copper output for the British war effort. Its contract with the British Ministry of Supply kept being renewed annually during the war below world market price.
In the 1940s, International Nickel was also the world’s leading producer of platinum group metals, a byproduct of the Sudbury ores. Even today, the Sudbury Basin is still the world’s third largest source of platinum group metals after South Africa’s Bushvelt and the immensely rich Norilsk deposit in Russia’s Siberia. During the war, company metallurgists at the British Acton refinery developed superior platinum metal alloys that were used in airplane spark plugs, radar, bombing equipment and military explosives.
Australian Munitions Industry
At the beginning of the war, the Australian munitions industry was just beginning to develop. Traditionally, this sector depended on Britain for the nickel-hardened steels that went into ordnance production. With the fall of France and possible German invasion, Britain needed these high-grade alloys at home and stopped exports to Australia.
Australian troops fighting in the Middle-East were facing critical supply shortages for arms and ammunition. An Australian appeal to the Canadian Munitions and Supply Department in Ottawa solved the problem. Atlas Steels in Welland, Ontario, close to the Port Colborne refinery, started shipping the high-grade nickel-bearing steels to Australia.
Genreal Wavell’s troop’s successful campaigns in Libya were greatly aided by Canadian nickel steels. For the remainder of the war, ninety per cent of this valuable material used by the Australian munitions industry came from Canada.