HUNTSVILLE, Alabama – Aerospace engineering researchers at The University of Alabama in Huntsville are modeling how a future U.S. spacecraft might be engineered for nuclear propulsion. They are also studying how reliable rocket engine components can be printed using advanced manufacturing techniques.
These two projects illustrate why UAH consistently ranks among the nation’s top programs for federally financed aerospace research. In 2018, the university earned a No. 5 ranking for research activities in the field, according to data from the National Science Foundation.
Dr. Judith Schneider, a professor in UAH’s Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering Department, said the university’s location in Cummings Research Park means it is perfectly positioned for collaboration with aerospace companies and government agencies located on Redstone Arsenal.
“We’re here in Huntsville, the Rocket City,” said Dr. Schneider, whose research focuses on advanced manufacturing processes such as friction stir welding and additive manufacturing of metals.
“I don’t think there is another place in the world that has all the capabilities we have right here in one location.”
Marshall Space Flight Center, NASA’s center for propulsion research and a frequent collaborator, stands nearby. Major aerospace and defense firms including Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman all have a major presence in Huntsville, which also hosts homegrown firms such as Dynetics.
“Every major aerospace company in the industry is represented here. They’re all here,” Dr. Schneider said. “People are going to come to Huntsville and UAH because this is where all the players are.”
Industry’s critical mass in Huntsville translates into opportunity for UAH researchers. The latest NSF data also showed that UAH ranks No. 11 among U.S. universities for NASA-sponsored research and No. 28 for Department of Defense research.
“This success points to the valuable partnerships that have existed for decades in this community and that UAH clearly provides effective and innovative outcomes to the technological challenges that exist for the U.S. Army, NASA and the FBI,” said Dr. Bob Lindquist, UAH’s Interim Vice President for Research and Economic Development.
One ongoing project for NASA centers on nuclear thermal propulsion as part of a potential test flight later this decade. The space agency is trying to determine the feasibility and affordability of a low enriched uranium-based NTP engine to power a manned spacecraft.
UAH researchers are working closely with counterparts at Marshall Space Flight Center and private contractors to solve the technical challenges created by a nuclear reactor at the heart of a rocket engine for deep space voyages.
UAH’s research focus is on modeling the nuclear-powered spacecraft on a mission to Mars.
“That’s why NASA brought us onboard, to explore opportunities and to look off into the distance to see what might be accomplished,” said Dr. Dale Thomas, UAH’s eminent scholar in systems engineering, who is the principal investigator for the research grant.
Dr. Schneider works with NASA and small manufacturers to research the effects of non-equilibrium build conditions on the resulting microstructures of metals used in additive manufacturing. A special concentration is on the interfaces formed in direct printing of bi-metallic components.
In one project for NASA, Dr. Schneider and her students worked with a vendor to help mature its processing of printing a single part from copper and Inconel, a nickel-based superalloy. NASA needed to determine if the part could stand up to the rigors of a hot-fire test, which was subsequently demonstrated.
Dr. Schneider’s ability to evaluate the microstructures of 3-D printed parts, especially those made with two different materials joined together, provides manufacturers with critical data about the integrity of their products.
“A lot of manufacturers are printing stuff today, but they don’t always have a full picture about the quality of what they are printing,” she said. “We are continuing to work with many small businesses. We can help them refine their process parameters to get a better product.”
In addition to collaboration with NASA, UAH’s expertise in additive manufacturing has led to collaborations with the U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command Aviation & Missile Center (formerly known as the U.S. Army Aviation and Missile Research Development and Engineering Center, or AMRDEC) and others.
UAH has carved out a solid niche in astronomy and astrophysics research, rising to No. 12 among U.S. universities in funding during 2018, a jump of nine spots, according to data in the NSF’s annual Higher Education Research and Development Survey.
Powering that gain was a $20 million, five-year grant from the NSF’s Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR) for the development of new predictive interaction technologies for aerospace and other industries.
Other UAH programs also ranked among the Top 12 for federal research funding in 2018, based on NSF data. They are: Economics (No. 8), Computer and Information Services (No. 11) and Atmospheric Science (No. 12).