Apr. 22, 2015 | By Alec

3D printing technology is clearly catching on in the aerospace industry. Over the last few months we’ve seen numerous 3D printed parts being created that are not just prototypes, but are actually heading to space themselves. Remember these 3D printed satellite parts from last month? And in terms of aerospace innovation, NASA definitely can’t stay behind. While they have already been using 3D printers on quite a large scale, they have just revealed that they have made a rocket engine part that can actually be used as part of a space program.

The part itself is a copper combustion chamber liner, a crucial component that needs to withstand extreme temperatures and pressures. Inside such a chamber, propellants will burn at more than 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit, while hydrogen at temperatures of less than a 100 degrees above the absolute zero temperature will circulate through carving channels on the outside. The inner wall, meanwhile, is very very thin. It is, in short, a part that needs to be highly detailed (there are more than 200 intricate cooling channels) and needs to be capable of withstanding extreme environments as well. Quite a challenge.

The actual part was made using a selective laser melting 3D printer in Marshall’s Materials and Processing Laboratory. While an FDM 3D printer is quite good at layering, this industrial manufacturing machine fused 8,255 layers of copper powder together over a period of 10 days and 18 hours – what a build project! Understandably associate administrator for the Space Technology Mission Directorate at NASA, Steve Jurczyk, called the part a milestone for aerospace 3D printing. ‘Additive manufacturing is one of many technologies we are embracing to help us continue our journey to Mars and even sustain explorers living on the Red Planet,’ he said on NASA’s website. In fact, 3D printing technology proved to be  a time and cost-saving application for creating these intricate designs and cooling channels.

As you can imagine, the finished part was preceded by a complex design and testing process, as space-bound parts simply need to be perfect. Several parts, designs and materials were tested at the NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. 'To circulate the gas, the combustion chamber liner has more than 200 intricate channels built between the inner and outer liner wall. Making these tiny passages with complex internal geometries challenged our additive manufacturing team,’ director of the Engineering Directorate Chris Singer revealed.

Electron microscope image of the copper particles used.

Zach Jones, the engineer who masterminded the manufacturing process, explained that copper is ideal for this part as it’s a wonderful heat conductor. ‘That’s why copper is an ideal material for lining an engine combustion chamber and for other parts as well, but this property makes the additive manufacturing of copper challenging because the laser has difficulty continuously melting the copper powder,’ he explained.

Only a handful of copper rocket parts have been previously made using a 3D printer, so this component is quite a landmark. It has been 3D printed in GRCo-84, a copper alloy created by materials scientists at NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio. Due to their success, Glenn’s engineers are already working on an extensive database of mechanical properties for 3D printed rocket materials. That databased is also scheduled to be opened to American manufacturers in NASA’s Materials and Processing Information System (MAPTIS), managed by Marshall.

Microscope image of etched copper.

The overall goal of that database and NASA’s experimentation with 3D printing technology is to eventually reduce build costs by 50 percent and make building times themselves up to 10 times faster. ‘We are not trying to just make and test one part. We are developing a repeatable process that industry can adopt to manufacture engine parts with advanced designs. The ultimate goal is to make building rocket engines more affordable for everyone,’ said Chris Protz, the Marshall propulsion engineer leading the project.

This one copper part is therefore just a first step in the a new NASA project called the Low Cost Upper Stage-Class Propulsion Project. Funded by NASA’s Game Changing Development Program, it is one of the many endeavors set up to revolutionize future space endeavors, including the eagerly awaited journey to Mars. The next step in the project is to extensively test the copper component to ensure that it performs under the circumstances it has been designed for. Once that stage is successfully completed, other parts are expected to be manufactured. 



Posted in 3D Printing Applications


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