Sunday, March 24, 2019

Rocket Crafters Developing 3D Printed Rocket Fuel for its Hybrid Engine

          By Brian Orlotti

Cocoa FL based space startup Rocket Crafters Inc., has patented a new method of 3d printing rocket fuel and is seeking new funding to commercialize its technology.

Founded in a garage in Cocoa, Florida some 15 miles from Kennedy Space Centre, Rocket Crafters is led by former astronaut Sid Gutierrez, its chairman, and US Air Force veteran Rob Fabian, its president.

In 2017, Rocket Crafters was granted a contract from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to test its patented hybrid rocket engine, which combines a 3D-printed solid plastic fuel with liquid nitrous oxide during ignition. This contrasts with traditional rocket engines that mix a liquid fuel and oxidizer.

The fuel, of the same type of plastic used in Lego bricks, is printed as a long horizontal core. The company found that 3D printing the fuel in a linear form reduces imperfections in the plastic, making for a more efficient, predictable burn.

Linear fuel cores were also found to faster to print than the previously used cylindrical forms. Also, Rocket Crafters found that adding aluminum to the plastic fuel further increased burn efficiency. The company is targeting its engine towards the small satellite launch market.

In late 2018, however, the company pivoted to patenting its 3D-printing process for fuel after co-founder Ronald Jones left the company and took his patents to form a new company, the Indialantic, FL based Firehawk Aerospace.

Advocates of hybrid rocket engines claim they are far safer than traditional ones because they eliminate the risk of a catastrophic explosion. The two components of a hybrid system cannot ignite except at very high temperatures. Rocket Crafters argues that hybrid engines would require less airspace to be closed during a launch since there would be zero risk of a large explosion.

Despite the rosy picture of hybrid engines painted by Rocket Crafters, the company has also admitted that hybrids in general have had a history of issues with unpredictable thrust and excessive vibration.

Rocket Crafters is currently in a Series A round of venture capital fundraising, with a goal of $5.7Mln US ($7.6Mln CDN).

The company is also in discussions with Exploration Park FL based Space Florida, the state’s space marketing and economic development agency. In addition to engine development, the company also seeks to build a new office and production facility. Rocket Crafters has scheduled its first test flight for this fall at Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia.

Hybrid rocket engines have the potential to make much safer launch vehicles, despite their developmental issues. As the commercial industry expands and matures, all new avenues of technology must be explored to maintain its momentum.
Brian Orlotti.

Brian Orlotti is a network operator at the Ontario Research and Innovation Optical Network (ORION), a not-for-profit network service provider to the education and research sectors.

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