‘Baptism of fire’ for AM printed thruster chamber

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ESA test 3D printed thruster chamber - Credit ESA

A 3D printed, platinum thruster chamber has passed a ‘baptism of fire’ when being hot tested by Airbus Defence and Space for the European Space Agency (ESA) in a world first.

The combustion chamber for the 10 N hydrazine thruster was printed in platinum–rhodium alloy using a laser beam applied to a metal powder bed. The research shows potential benefits for the telecommunications market, where this type of thruster can be used for reaction control of satellites.

The reduced waste offered by additive manufacturing techniques offer a large incentive for space agencies. The materials required to make parts are often expensive, so by manufacturing the chamber using additive methods as opposed to conventional subtractive methods mean less initial material is used or wasted. This can drastically reduce the materials cost for a part, such as the platinum-rhodium alloy used in this application which costs roughly €40 per gram.

‘We produce 150–200 thrusters in this class per year for different customers. 3D printing should allow shorter production cycles and a more flexible production flow, such as manufacturing on demand,’ said Dr Steffen Beyer of Airbus Defence and Space, managing the project.

‘Considering that platinum currently costs €40 a gram, 3D printing offers considerable future savings.’

Testing involved firings including a single burn of 32 minutes, during which a maximum throat temperature of 1,253°C was reached. Beyer said: ‘It demonstrates that performance comparable to a conventional thruster can be obtained through 3D printing.’

The platinum–rhodium was supplied by Germany’s Heraeus company, then atomised by the Nanoval firm, with the additive manufacturing process overseen by Germany’s Fraunhofer Institutes of Laser Technology, in Aachen, and Machine Tools and Forming Technology, in Augsburg.

As well as cost savings and faster production times, additive manufacturing also opens up new alloys for processing. The next phase of the group’s research will be to use platinum-iridium which is difficult to fabricate using traditional techniques such as casting and forging. Beyer said: ‘printing is the only way it can be harnessed for space use.’

Mikko Nikulainen, head of ESA’s Component Technology and Space Materials Division, summarised: ‘The potential of 3D printing makes it an important element of our new advanced manufacturing initiative, which focuses on a range of technologies to slash European manufacturing costs and lead times while improving performance and boosting competitiveness.’

The research was conducted as part of the ESA’s project, called 'Additive Manufacturing Technologies for Advanced Satellite Thrust Chamber' (AMTAC).

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