For all of the high-flying adventure that’s usually associated with solid fuel rockets, it is actually a fairly traditional field, averse to change and slow to adopt new technologies.
And for good reason.
The industry deals with high levels of risk every day, and when sending multi-million dollar satellites into orbit on top of what are effectively controlled explosions, the general consensus is to stick with what works and focus on delivering payload safely and effectively.
But that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for improvement.
Solid-fuel rockets have been a mainstay in the field for decades and, although liquid fuel has gained market share in recent years, the technology remains common in commercial rocketry. There is a problem with solid fuel propellants, though. Although they are effective when used for payload delivery, they have plateaued in performance and have not been improved dramatically in over 50 years. In fact, in the typical solid-fuel rocket, 94% of the entire unit is taken up by fuel with only 6% of the space left over for payload. That limits not only how much today’s rockets can take up into orbit, but increases the cost of all space and low-orbit work, given that a single large satellite orbital trip on a commercial rocket today starts at $60 million and goes up from there.
CEO Greg Place and his team of expert chemists, Steve Buckner, Paul Jelliss, and Stephen Chung, at St. Louis-based nanoMetallix are working to solve this problem with aluminum-based nanotechnology that’s capable of revolutionizing the effectiveness of solid-fuel rockets through shorter ignition delays, increased burn rate and an enhanced and more complete combustion. In short: their scalable, aluminum nanoenergetics are making solid fuel rockets more effective.
“Aluminum has been used in rocketry for the last 50 years and nanotechnology for the last two decades, so these materials have a long history in the industry,” Place says. “But, if we were able to completely replace conventional aluminum in solid fuel with nanoMetallix, launch providers would be able to increase payload capacity by nearly 5x. That means a lot, because NASA would be able to carry as much as five times as much cargo to the International Space Station and commercial partners would be able to carry five times as many satellites into orbit. And when they’re charging millions per flight, that becomes a very big deal.”
Compared to today’s 94% fuel to 6% payload mix, nanoMetallix’s technology would increase the payload space to 30% per rocket, with just 70% being devoted to fuel. Using its proprietary development process, Place says, the company is able to increase the energy density in its fuel by 30% over any comparable solid fuel rocket on the market.
For end users like NASA and commercial rocket operators, this also translates to lower transport costs, because fewer trips into space will be needed to accomplish the work being done today. Down the road, it could also lower the cost of space work across the board, opening the door to increased off-planet activity up to and including commercial space travel and multi-planetary exploration.
“NASA has used the term ‘game changing’ for this technology,” Place says, “and so much so that we’re already looking at testing to validate the development of single-stage-to-orbit boosters (SSTO) to bring payload or people back from the surface of Mars. Nothing as energetic as our nanoparticles has ever been created in an air stable form, with respect to practical solid-state materials. We have a chance to reinvent this industry in ways that were not even feasible just a few years ago, and are doing just that with our early adopters.”
nanoMetallix is focused on expansion in 2016 and is currently working with several strategic partners—ranging from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the U.S. Air Force and the U.S. Army, to commercial customers including Lockheed Martin and Boeing—on ground and live-fire testing in their rocket engines to evaluate mechanical and material compatibility with various solid fuel rocket systems. Place says he expects inflight tests to begin in 2017 but right now the company is scaling up its production capabilities to meet what he expects will be a large number of orders in the next year, with a Phase 2 production facility set to open in the next few months. Rockets need hundreds of kilograms of fuel per flight, so the company wants to be able to produce at scale both safely and quickly.
“Each competitor in the space industry wants to carry more payload into orbit and serve more customers for whatever their space application may be,” Place says. “nanoMetallix allows them to use same mass of fuel as they do right now but carry more weight and more payload. It’s a very exciting time to be in this industry.”