Aerospace Engineering Students Develop Hybrid Rocket Engine


A missile team from students at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign persisted in a year of adversity. In five time zones, they successfully developed a hybrid rocket engine that uses paraffin and a novel Laughing gasOxygen mixture called Nytrox. The team has set itself the goal of launching a rocket with the new engine at the Intercollegiate Rocketry and Engineering Competition 2021.

ÔÇťHybrid propulsion powers Virgin Galactic’s suborbital tourist spacecraft, and developing this engine has been a challenge. Our students are now experiencing these challenges firsthand and are learning how to master them, ÔÇŁsaid the team’s faculty advisor Michael Lembeck.

Last year, the team experienced a series of catastrophic failures with hybrid engines that use nitrous oxide. Propellant is often overheated in the New Mexico desert where the IREC competition takes place. Lembeck said this motivates the team to find an alternative fuel that could stay stable at temperature. Nytrox emerged as the solution to the problem.

When the team started working on the engine last spring semester, the excitement of doing hydrostatic testing of the bottom container for oxidizer tanks quickly turned to frustration as the team lacked a safe test location.

Combustion chamber for hybrid rocket motors

The computer-aided design shows the cross-section of the combustion chamber. Credit: Department of Aerospace Engineering, Grainger College of Engineering

Team Leader Vignesh Sella said: ÔÇťWe planned to run the test in the Willard engine test facility at Willard Airport. However, the Department of Aerospace Engineering canceled all tests until the safety requirements could be met. ”

Sella said they were initially discouraged but teamed up by holding a security clearance meeting with another student missile group to review their options.

ÔÇťAs a result of this meeting, we worked out a plan to move the project forward. The hybrid team rigorously evaluated our security procedures and let Dr. Dassou Nagassou, head of the Aerodynamics Research Lab, check. He became a great resource for us and a very helpful mentor. ”

Sella and Andrew Larkey also reached out to Purdue University to draw on their vast experience in rocket propulsion. You have connected with Chris Nielson, a PhD student and laboratory manager at Purdue. They conducted preliminary design reviews over the phone and were eventually invited to conduct their hydrostatic and cold flow tests at Purdue’s Zucrow Laboratories, a facility dedicated to rocket propulsion testing with several on-site experts in the field.

“We sent some members there to scout the site and take notes before bringing the entire team there for a test,” said Sella. ÔÇťThese meetings, relationships, and advances were arduous and difficult to achieve, although they sound smooth and easy to establish. It was a great relief for us to have the support of the department, a pressure vessel expert as mentor and Zucrow Laboratories for our team. ”

Hybrid Rocket Engine Team

A pre-pandemic photo of some team members – from left to right: Abhiraj Majumder (AE ’21), Chris Nielsen (Purdue Graduate Student), Connor Latham (AE ’20), Vignesh Sella (AE ’21), Andrew Larkey (ME ‘ 21), Avery Moore (AE ’21), Avinash Rao (AE ’21). Credit: Department of Aerospace Engineering, Grainger College of Engineering

The expanded summary, which the team submitted to the AIAA Propulsion and Energy conference much earlier, assumed that the motor would have been assembled and tested before the documentation process began. Team leader Vignesh Sella said they wanted to document tough test data but had to switch tactics in March. Moving campus to online-only courses has also restricted all personal activities, including those of registered student organizations like ISS.

ÔÇťLike the interference by COVID-19 We had to work remotely and turned the paper around, focusing on documenting the design processes and decisions we had made for the engine. This allowed us to work remotely and complete a paper that wasn’t too far from the original summary. Our members, some of whom are international, met at Zoom and Discord to work virtually together on the paper in five time zones, ÔÇŁsaid Sella.

Sella said he and the entire team are proud of what has been achieved and will “return with a vengeance this fall”.

The Illinois Space Society is a technical, professional, and educational student organization at the University of I in the Department of Aerospace Engineering. The society consists of 150 active members. The hybrid rocket engine team consisted of 20 members and is one of the five technical projects within the ISS. The project began in 2013 with the goal of building a sub-scale hybrid rocket engine before moving to a full engine. The sub-scale hybrid rocket engine was successfully built and hot-fired in the summer of 2018. It delivered the positive test results required for the development and manufacture of a large engine.

“After the engine has completed its tests, the next task will be to integrate the engine into the rocket vehicle,” said Sella. ÔÇŁ

In June 2021, the rocket will be transported to Spaceport America for its first launch in Truth or Consequences.

Reference: “Development of a Nytrox paraffin hybrid rocket motor” by Vignesh Sella, Andrew Larkey, Abhiraj Majumder, Avinash Rao, Zavar Abidi, Nicolas Rasmont, Aasheesh Randeo, Miron Liu, Avery Moore and Michael F. Lembeck, August 17, 2020, AIAA Forum for Propulsion and Energy 2020.
DOI: 10.2514 / 6.2020-3729

This work was supported by the U of I Student Sustainability Committee, the Office of Undergraduate Research, and the Illinois Space Society. Technical assistance was provided by the Department of Aerospace Engineering, the School of Chemical Sciences machine shop, Zucrow Laboratories and Christopher D. Nilsen of Purdue University, Stephen A. Whitmore of Utah State University, and Dassou Nagassou of the Aerodynamics Research Laboratory in Illinois.

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