NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville Alabama has managed to 3D print the first full-scale rocket engine part made out of copper.
According to Steve Jurczyk, associate administrator for the Space Technology Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington, this has been a milestone for aerospace 3D printing. Additive manufacturing can significantly reduce time and costs of making rocket parts such as the copper combustion chamber liner.
Chris Singer, Director of the Engineering Directorate at NASA explains: “On the inside of the paper-edge-thin copper liner wall, temperatures soar to over 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit, and we have to keep it from melting by recirculating gases cooled to less than 100 degrees above absolute zero on the other side of the wall. 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.”
Using a selective laser melting machine, the chamber liner was 3D printed fusing 8,255 layers of copper powder in 10 days and 18 hours. Being extremely good at conducting heat, copper is an ideal material for this and other parts, however, this also makes it a challenging material for the use in additive manufacturing, as lasers have difficulty continuously melting the powder.
So far only a handful of copper rockets parts have been 3D printed. The copper alloy GRCo-84 used in the process were created by material scientists at NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio.
“Our goal is to build rocket engine parts up to 10 times faster and reduce cost by more than 50 percent,” said Chris Protz, the Marshall propulsion engineer leading the project. “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.”