3D printing is an incredible tool for prototyping and development, but the properties of the materials can be a limiting factor for functional parts. [Sam Rogers] and colleagues at [AX Technologies] have been testing and developing a small liquid-fueled rocket engine and successfully used vortex cooling to protect a resin 3D printed combustion chamber. (Video, embedded below.)
Vortex cooling works by injecting oxygen into the combustion chamber tangentially, just inside the nozzle of the engine, which creates a cooling, swirling vortex boundary layer along the chamber wall. The oxygen moves to the front end of the combustion chamber where it mixes with the fuel and ignites in the center. This does not protect the nozzle itself, which only lasts a few seconds before becoming unusable. However, thanks to the modular design of the test engine, only the small nozzle section had to be reprinted for every test. While this part could be manufactured using a metal 3D printer, the costs are still very high, especially at this experimental stage. The clear resin parts also allow the combustion observed and more accurate conclusions to be drawn from every test.
This engine intended to be used as a torch igniter for a much larger rocket engine. Fuel is injected into the front of the combustion chamber, where a spark plug is located to ignite the oxygen-fuel mixture. The flow of the oxygen and fuel is controlled by two servo-operated valves connected to a microcontroller, which is mounted with the engine on linear rails. This allows the test engine to move freely, and push against a load cell to measure thrust. The spark is created before the valves are opened to prevent a delayed ignition, which can blow up the engine, and getting the valve sequence and timing correct is critical. Many iterations and destroyed parts later, the [AX Technologies] team achieved successful ignition, with a clear supersonic Mach diamond pattern in the exhaust.
This is just one more example of 3D printing and cheap electronics allowing impressive progress on a limited budget. Another example is [Joe Barnard]’s progress in getting a model rocket to land itself with a solid fuel engine. Companies and organisations have been using 3D printed components in rocket engines for a few years now, and we’ve even seen an open source version.