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Johns Hopkins Researchers Aim for Safer, More Efficient Rocket Engines

U.S. Air Force funding could boost development of new domestic space technology

April 28, 2016
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The U.S. Air Force has awarded two contracts totaling $1.48 million to the Energetics Research Group, based within Johns Hopkins University’s Whiting School of Engineering, to help set the stage for the next generation of U.S.-made rocket engines.

The funding will be used to reduce risks associated with new technologies that may replace the Russian-made RD-180 engine. This rocket engine, which is now used for carrying communications satellites into orbit and delivering equipment to the International Space Station, is presently the most widely used for important space missions. However, U.S. officials are encouraging development of domestic-made high-performance rocket engines.

Johns Hopkins is the only university to receive funding from the U.S. Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center’s recent program, which granted ten awards totaling $34.6 million.

The U.S. Air Force has provided two grants to Johns Hopkins researchers who are testing ways to improve rocket engines NASA photo.

The U.S. Air Force has provided two contracts to Johns Hopkins researchers who are testing ways to improve rocket engines.    NASA photo.

“Both of these new awards position the Johns Hopkins University Whiting School of Engineering for significant participation in the development and sound operation of the next generation of liquid rocket engines,” said Peter Zeender, director of the Whiting School’s Energetics Research Group. “We are very excited for this opportunity to engage in research that will ensure the safe and efficient use of other liquid fuels in the next generation of rocket engines.”

The first contract, valued at $545,000, will fund the study of 3D printing techniques to test production and performance of advanced cooling concepts within rocket engines. This new and fast-growing technique offers and allows more flexible design options for the critical cooling channels within the engines. The Energetics Research Group will try to determine if the 3D printing method can provide better performance benefits than traditional manufacturing methods.

The second contract, valued at $935,000, was awarded to evaluate the performance of two alternative fuels: methane and liquefied natural gas. The Johns Hopkins engineers will develop new equipment to test cooling channel performance, carbon deposition and its ability to withstand high temperatures of these two fuels on a small scale.

The work will be performed at the Advanced Engine and Rocket Fuels Lab, WSE Energetics Research Group’s laboratory located in Columbia, Md. The lab was established to develop the equipment that tests the kerosene-based fuel that is currently used on RD-180 engines.

“These awards are a logical extension of the work we’ve conducted on thermal stability, propellants and materials that our lab has conducted over the last three years,” said Nick Keim, principal investigator of the Advanced Engine and Rocket Fuels Lab. “It allows us to reduce the risks associated with new technologies that are being proposed for the next generation of liquid rocket engines.”

The results from this research will be made available to the U.S. Air Force and subsequently to other U.S. manufacturers that are working on the new liquid rocket engines that could replace the current Russian engines with a domestic-made model.

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