Jan 20, 2017 | By Benedict

Blue Origin, the aerospace company owned by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, is using 3D printing to build the BE-4, a next-generation rocket engine fueled by liquefied natural gas. The engine will power Blue Origin’s New Glenn orbital rocket and potentially a United Launch Alliance rocket too.

Christmas is an understandably busy time for Amazon, the online megastore and one-stop destination for media, electronics, and last-minute gifts that are guaranteed to arrive by December 24. But now that the festive season is over, founder Jeff Bezos can busy himself with other matters, such as his Washington-based aerospace manufacturing company, Blue Origin. According to Bezos, Blue Origin is currently hard at work putting the finishing touches on the BE-4, a new rocket engine that uses 3D printed parts.

In a mass email sent by Bezos this week, the billionaire entrepreneur and investor explained that the BE-4 uses several “boost” turbopumps in addition to its main pumps, will burn a mix of liquid oxygen and natural gas to deliver 500,000 lbs of thrust, and will help power the company’s New Glenn launch vehicle. We already knew most of that. However, Bezos also says that 3D printing has played a key role in the production of the engine, which is perhaps more of an eye opener. Last year, Blue Origin president Rob Meyerson explained that the company had “made a significant investment in 3D printing.”

“Our Ox Boost Pump (OBP) design leverages 3D additive manufacturing to make many of the key components,” Bezos wrote this week. “The housing is a single printed aluminum part and all of the stages of the hydraulic turbine are printed from Monel, a nickel alloy. This manufacturing approach allows the integration of complex internal flow passages in the housing that would be much more difficult to make using conventional methods. The turbine nozzles and rotors are also 3D printed and require minimum machining to achieve the required fits.”

What’s more, in addition to powering Blue Origin’s own New Glenn launch vehicle, the partially 3D printed BE-4 may also be used on Vulcan, the forthcoming semi-reusable rocket being developed by United Launch Alliance (ULA). However, ULA—a joint venture between Lockheed Martin and Boeing—is currently weighing up whether to use the BE-4 or the AR-1, an engine being developed by Aerojet Rocketdyne (which, not coincidentally, is also using 3D printing in the production of its engine). Time will tell which machine gets the nod.

After successful testing of the Ox Boost Pump last year, Bezos says that the partially 3D printed device is nearing readiness. “The OBP was first demonstrated last year in testing, where we validated its interaction with a main pump,” the entrepreneur wrote. “The second iteration of the OBP for BE-4 is now in test. We’ve also just finished assembly of the unit that we’ll install for the first all-up BE-4 engine test.”

While it awaits on the ULA decision, Blue Origin is currently continuing with its suborbital test flight program for the New Shepard, a reusable spaceship powered by the hydrogen-fueled BE-3 engine. The BE-4 is being built to end American dependence on the Russian-made RD-180 engine.

 

 

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