After months of designing, planning and spending, the USC Liquid Propulsion Lab fired the world’s first student-made 3-D-printed rocket engine a month ahead of schedule.
The engine, named James, was made entirely on campus, a feat not accomplished before by any student group around the world, according to USC News.
The parts constituting James were constructed at the USC Viterbi Center for Advanced Manufacturing and taken to USC’s machine shop for finishing.
“The reason we chose this particular material is because it qualified with the temperature and pressure qualities that we needed,” said Nihar Patel, a second-year graduate student studying aerospace engineering and engineering management, as well as the designer on the larger Balerion engine.
However, printing occurs after a long process of computer-automated design of each individual part. Computer-automated design allows engineers to create designs using vector-based graphics. The design for the smaller engine took nearly a semester.
“[Printing] opens up a door to a vast majority of design that is not available with traditional [manufacturing] and it really opens up a designer’s creativity,” Patel said.
While the printing process was tedious, Patel said it outshined traditional manufacturing in both time and cost efficiency. According to Patel, additive manufacturing allowed the student researchers to make small changes on their computer and begin a reprint immediately, while traditional processes could take months.
“The additive manufacturing process allows to create a lot of components that are more complex,” said Emily Dzurilla, a second-year graduate student studying astronautical engineering who assisted on the final design of the engine. “It also allows us to get them faster than traditional machining.”
During the test, which took place in the Mojave Desert in November, the engine produced 600 pounds of thrust along with 725 pounds of pressure in its holding chamber. The engine is a liquid propulsion engine — the only kind that LPL crafts, which incorporates a more complex engine that allows for variable thrust and easily repeatable tests.
In addition to James, LPL has also engineered 3-D printed engine Balerion, which can produce 2,250 pounds of thrust. Testing for the engine will occur in the spring.
“[Balerion] is about two to three times bigger [than James] and can produce a max of 10 kilonewtons,” said German Padilla, the engine design engineer and a second-year graduate student studying astronautical engineering.
Though LPL is relatively new on campus, it has experienced an increasing amount of notoriety due to its recent feats. Its work was presented at the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics Propulsion Conference over the summer. In October, the designs of the 3-D-printed engine were presented at the International Aeronautical Congress in Bremen, Germany.
“The other day, we had SpaceX engineers come and tour the lab … we’re getting the attention from the big companies,” Padilla said. “It opens up a lot of connections and possibilities of future employment.”
As the lab enters its fourth year, the LPL team plans to trial fire Balerion sometime in the spring, while simultaneously working on making testing of James more efficient.
“We’re very focused on doing good work and setting really ambitious goals. We want to be able to produce the best engineers out of our lab,” Dzurilla said.