On Monday, the partnership of XCOR Aerospace and the United Launch Alliance announced that they had adapted an old technology, the piston, into a high technology pump for liquid hydrogen rocket fuel. “…We have successfully operated our liquid hydrogen pump at design flow rate and pressure conditions,” said XCOR CEO Jeff Greason in a recent press release. The liquid hydrogen pump tested earlier this week is just one pump in a new family of piston driven fuel pumps. Flight Global reports that the company has already tested a rocket engine setup with their piston pumps, using the system to fire liquid oxygen and kerosene in March of this year.
So, why use an old automotive technology in the relatively new field of rocket development? Pistons provide a different way to drive fuel and oxidizer into the combustion chamber, where the chemical reaction that produces thrust occurs. Other current rocket technologies use a gas generator system (pump fed) or high pressure tanks (pressure fed) to drive the fuel and oxidizer into the combustion chamber (see below). The pump fed rocket relies upon reacting some of the fuel and oxidizer in a high temperature turbine, which generates the power for the pump system. Pressure-fed systems are simpler, using a high pressure gas (usually something nonreactive) to push the fuel and oxidizer into the combustion chamber. Both the pump fed and pressure-fed systems are fairly heavy, due to the gas generator and the large pressurization tanks. All three technologies have benefits and deficits, but XCOR argues that the piston pumped engines will cost less to manufacture and be easier to operate.
All three engine designs are competing to maximize thrust and reliability while keeping the mass of the system low, often leveraging other technologies to reach that goal. XCOR’s piston engine, the company explains, utilizes automotive technologies and a patented thermodynamic cycle to maintain a high specific impulse (a measure of thrust efficiency) and an easy start-stop feature. Like automobiles, XCOR’s pumps can run at a higher rpm than the original design, so the piston pump can be fitted to a larger rocket and pump more fuel if necessary. These pumps are a way toward an adaptable and reliable system through tweaking proven automobile technologies. Likewise, the pump fed rocket borrows high temperature, low mass materials from other industries, like aircraft engine manufacturing, to maximize the efficiency of the turbine and keep the mass low. Even the pressure-fed system draws from another industry, the materials industry, to create lighter tanks of new and exotic materials (such as carbon fibers).
Other non-aerospace technologies are also entering the aerospace sector. Designers are using enhanced video game graphics to simulate engineering tasks. Leveraging the developments of other industries is a great way for rocket propulsion and aerospace to progress with tight budgets. By utilizing automotive developments, XCOR flew through its first small piston rocket pump development, “taking fewer than four weeks from initial design to demonstration,” according to the site. Borrowing some concepts from other industries can help other companies do the same.