James Cook University (JCU) scientists have successfully 3D printed fuel grains from plastics and other materials to power future space missions.
The team led by Dr Elsa Antunes made use of tailor-made rocket motors to test their 3D printed fuels.
“We wanted to explore the viability of using commercially available 3D printing materials in the manufacture of hybrid rocket fuel grains,” explains Antunes.
“We knew that the common plastic Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene (ABS) has shown promise so we decided to test that against six other compounds.”
Hybrid fueled rockets have been gaining popularity in recent years as they are safer and easier to control than conventional rockets.
“3D printing has meant designers have been able to make more complex geometries for rockets and has also opened up the possibility of using novel fuels to power them,” intones Antunes.
“The last decade has seen an almost exponential increase in the number of rocket launches for sub-orbital scientific missions or for delivering payloads into low Earth orbits. There are many new investors and there is an increased demand for satellites.”
Antunes’ team first 3D printed the rocket and then made a test rig for it at JCU’s Townsville campus.
The fuel grain recipes were tested in three second burns of the motor, before dissecting the fuel cells to further analyse their performance.
“We were disappointed with the polylactic acid and aluminium composite, we think it is largely due to the size, shape and surface area of the aluminium particles – but that’s another thing that we can explore in the near future while taking advantage of modern manufacturing techniques,” says Antunes confidently.
“There are many new avenues opening up for people working in the field. With new manufacturing techniques such as 3D printing we are able to do things that were just impossible in the past.”