Aug 3, 2016 | By Alec

The aerospace industry seems to be going through something of a renaissance, with more and more innovations appearing every week. But in contrast to the 1960s, NASA and the Soviets no longer have a monopoly on aerospace development. Indeed, most of the pioneering work seems to be done by various other companies and startups, such as Space X, Made In Space and Rocket Labs, who are cleverly harnessing 3D printing for various highly efficient solutions. The New Zealand-based Rocket Labs, for instance, is working on a rocket launch featuring a high efficient 3D printed engine.

But while most of those aerospace 3D printing innovations involve 3D printed engine or satellite parts, one Singaporean/Australian company called Gilmour Space Technologies have gone in a completely different direction. Over the past few months, they have been experimenting with 3D printed fuel made from two different materials, and recently even launched a self-made rocket propelled by their custom concoction – believed to be the first time a rocket was powered with 3D printed fuel. Could this be the future of efficient space exploration?

It’s a remarkable achievement by a remarkable and ambitious company. Gilmour Space Technologies is being run by seven researchers, engineers and ex-bankers based in the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD). However, they are also running an office/space camp in the Australian town of Pimpama on the country’s east coast. The company itself was founded in 2012 by husband and wife couple Michelle and Adam Gilmour, who have lived in Singapore for the past twenty years.

While Gilmour Space Technologies is focusing on a wide spectrum of aerospace development (including educating a new generation of engineers in their Space Academy), their particular specialty is rockets. Specifically, the startup is seeking to provide rocket launch services in the near future, for anything from supplies to research and communication satellites. And they see that demand is increasing. “We think the space industry is going through a renaissance. There are more and more uses being developed for space satellites in areas such as earth observation, global communication systems and asteroid mining,” said Mrs Gilmour.

But that is a very expensive business, as each launch costs upwards of a million dollars, with large rockets for orbital satellites easily reaching the $15 million range. But with the help of 3D printing, the Gilmour team believes that they could greatly reduce the costs involved.

Their secret? 3D printed proprietary rocket fuel. In contrast, NASA and the many private aerospace companies in the world use either liquid or solid fuels for launching payloads into space. Each has their benefits and drawbacks, ranging from storability to overall thrust and the complexity of the engine. While hybrid fuels – combining the best of solid and liquid propellants – are becoming more common, Gilmour instead turned to 3D printing.

The prototype fuel 3D printer.

In a nutshell, they have developed a custom 3D printing system that lets them 3D print a low cost, but highly efficient solid rocket fuel. “Dual material 3D printers are in use today, but they are small with limited choices in terms of materials,” said Mrs Gilmour. “Our proprietary rocket fuel cannot be printed with existing 3D printers.” Much of this has been made possible by the Singaporean National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Cluster, who provided a ‘six-figure’ R&D sum through the SUTD.

Thanks to this 3D printing breakthrough, the Gilmour team believes that rocket launches can become significantly cheaper. Small launch rockets, suitable for satellites for sub-orbital experiments, could be launched for as little as $750,000 – a quarter of a million cheaper than existing rockets. Larger rockets carrying orbital satellites, could be launched for as little as $5 million, as opposed to the $15 million it costs today.

To realize these plans, the startup is currently working on a larger commercial version of their 3D printer to produce the fuel on a larger scale. The company is also currently seeking investments from venture-capital firms to fund development. If everything goes according to plan, the sub-orbital launches could take start within 18 months.

In the meantime, the Gilmour team has already successfully tested several rockets at a launch site in Queensland, Australia. The 3.6m rocket – fully made by their Australian subsidiary – went up an estimated 5 km, demonstrating the potential of their 3D printed fuel system. Other launch sites are also being secured in the US, in collaboration with NASA and the Kennedy Space Center.

But before these low-cost rocket launches can really kick off, a lot of work still needs to be done. The Gilmour team is therefore closely collaborating with numerous SUTD specialists. “SUTD is key to this success. They are involved in many aspects of our business,” Mrs. Gilmour explained, adding that the Singaporean government is also creating an excellent innovation environment. “The government is recognizing space as a new and emerging business area, which is very encouraging.”

Other tests involving 3D printed fuel.

 

 

Posted in 3D Printing Application

 

 

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