June 23, 2003
Renovated rocket lab at Purdue is 'national resource'
WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. Purdue University has completed major renovations to a one-of-a-kind propulsion facility and has begun full-scale laboratory testing in research that includes work to develop engines for NASA's next-generation space shuttle.
Engineers working in the High Pressure Laboratory, one of six facilities at Purdue's Maurice J. Zucrow Laboratories, will perform research sponsored by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, U.S. Air Force and U.S. Army, other federal agencies and aerospace companies, said Stephen Heister, a professor in Purdue's School of Aeronautics and Astronautics.
"It's the most comprehensive and most capable university propulsion facility in which to test engines at higher pressures and thrust levels," said Heister, who has led efforts to refurbish the lab.
Rocket tests began in June.
"This lab truly will become a national resource because of its scale and capabilities," said William Anderson, an associate professor of aeronautics and astronautics. "We will be able to study physical phenomena on the scale and conditions at which they occur in real rockets."
The lab will be an important training ground for a new generation of engineers, who will be essential for the nation's space industry to meet its goals, Anderson said.
"It is well recognized that there is a critical need for new grads as the engineers who began their careers in the '60s retire," he said. "By the time our students begin their professional careers, they will already have seen their designs transformed into experimental hardware and see how their analyses compare to actual results. NASA and industry realize this, and they have been very supportive of our efforts to build up this lab, and we are very appreciative of their support."
The rocket-testing facility within the High Pressure Lab, built in 1965, had not been upgraded since the mid-1970s. Jay Gore, the Vincent P. Reilly Professor of Mechanical Engineering and Associate Dean of Engineering for Research and Entrepreneurship, said in the interim, other, more modern portions of the lab have been active in combustion research for turbine engines used in aircraft and power generation and in work to improve diesel engines for trucks and other vehicles.
Purdue began rebuilding the lab two years ago, when it received a $1 million, two-year grant from the Indiana 21st Century Research and Technology Fund, established by the state to promote high-tech research and development and to help commercialize university innovations. That work, which established the lab as the Indiana Propulsion and Power Center of Excellence, was carried out with help from the Allison Advanced Development Co. in Indianapolis, a division of Rolls-Royce Corp.
The renovated lab has already begun attracting research dollars.
"Over those two years that Purdue received $1 million, we brought in almost $3 million in research money, so we leveraged that money quite well," said Scott E. Meyer, senior propulsion engineer at the lab.
The high-pressure lab includes two "test cells," blockhouse-like rooms with 18-inch-thick steel-reinforced concrete walls. Each cell contains two test beds, meaning four separate tests can be carried out at the same time.
One of the cells is for rocket testing. The other is for combustion research for turbine engines and for work in experimental propulsion systems such as "pulse-detonation" engines. These engines may lead to the development of "hypersonic" aircraft that travel several times the speed of sound. The advanced military and commercial aircraft are expected not only to travel faster, but also more efficiently and at lower cost than conventional jets.
The lab is jointly operated by the School of Mechanical Engineering and the School of Aeronautics and Astronautics. Its namesake, Maurice J. Zucrow, was a Purdue mechanical engineering alumnus who, in 1928, earned the first doctoral degree in an engineering field granted by Purdue. His research in rocket propulsion inspired the construction of the first facility at Zucrow Labs in 1948. Since then, the Zucrow labs have evolved into a complex of six facilities on a 24-acre site west of campus, where engineers perform a wide range of propulsion-related research in rockets, jet engines and other internal combustion engines.
"Support from the 21st Century Research and Technology Fund made it possible to inject new energy into the propulsion and power effort at Purdue, which is one of our true legacies," said E. Daniel Hirleman, the William E. and Florence E. Perry Head of the School of Mechanical Engineering.
A critical part of the lab is a system that pressurizes the rocket fuel before feeding it to the test engines a step that enables the facility to simulate the real thing. The Purdue lab is believed to be the only university facility in the nation capable of firing rockets with propellant-feed pressures up to 6,000 pounds per square inch and thrust levels up to 10,000 pounds of force, which are typical conditions that exist in advanced chemical rocket engines.
Rockets use special turbopumps to inject fuel at high pressure into the combustion chamber. In the lab setting, however, it is safer and more practical to use high-pressure nitrogen to push the fuel into the engine instead of using the turbopumps. Liquid nitrogen is held in a 2,400-gallon tank maintained at about minus 300 degrees Fahrenheit. The nitrogen is vaporized and transferred via metal tubing to holding tanks at pressures as high as 6,000 pounds per square inch for use in the experiments. While the engines are running in the test cells, data are collected by various sensors, and video cameras record the firing.
Another unusual feature in the lab is a large tank, or "heat exchanger," in which natural gas heats air to test pulse-detonation and jet engines. Unlike rockets, jet turbines and pulse-detonation engines scoop air from the atmosphere in order to burn fuel. In live flights, the air in such engines is heated to hundreds of degrees. To simulate those operating conditions, air is artificially heated with natural gas and then fed into the test cell.
"I think we are well positioned to really contribute to a lot of the high-speed propulsion systems that are being developed because we have a large air supply, and we can heat air to simulate high-speed flight conditions," Heister said.
Yet another factor that sets the Purdue lab apart from other university facilities is that it was designed originally for rocket testing.
"Because most facilities were not built to do this kind of work, they are landlocked on their campuses or limited in other ways," Meyer said. "This lab was intentionally created to be remote from campus to be able to do this kind of work."
Students are essential for the lab's operation because they perform most of the work, gaining valuable experience in the process.
"The students not only have to fulfill their rigorous course work, they also come out here and do real engineering," Meyer said. "They do the lion's share of the work, running tubing and plumbing, doing the wiring, programming the data-acquisition systems, hooking up instrumentation, conducting the test operations."
Senior Kevin Miller of Goshen, Ind., said opportunities in the lab influenced his decision to stay at Purdue for graduate studies.
"It's extraordinary to have such firsthand exposure to all phases of a project," Miller said. "I chose to stay on for grad school because I am extremely excited about the research that is being conducted here, and I feel that working in this particular lab environment will enable me to develop rapidly as an engineer."
The first tests carried out in the refurbished lab were for Northrop Grumman Space Technologies, which is developing rocket engines for a new generation of space shuttles. Other work funded by NASA also will focus on testing engines for future space shuttles.
"The high pressure lab has been an invaluable experience in terms of hands-on, practical knowledge," said Adam Butt of Carmel, Ind., who is studying for a master's degree in aeronautics and astronautics. "Most engineers in the field only work on one aspect of a system design. Here we have the opportunity not only to design, but also to build, test, analyze, and redesign.
"It's an amazing and rare opportunity."
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