While SpaceX and its role in the commercial rocket launch market have changed the economics of space and ushered in an era of small satellite entrepreneurship. The actual rocket engine technology they use is not much different from the technology used 50 years ago when NASA first forays into space.
Firehawk Aerospace, a new startup founded by CEO Will Edwards and Chairman and Chief Scientists Ron Jones, aims to change that with a stable, affordable hybrid rocket fuel that uses additive manufacturing (industrial-scale 3D printing) to overcome the hurdles and limitations to overcome previous hybrid fuel engine designs.
Hybrid missiles themselves ̵
Jones had been deeply interested in physics and engineering during his school and college years, but eventually joined the Navy and became an aviator before returning to the aerospace industry. Meanwhile, he used the advent of the internet in its early days to delve deeper into his early love of rocket science, specifically researching hybrid motor technology and trading notes with experts around the world.
“I ended up developing two concepts together,” Jones told me in an interview. “For one thing, they used the wrong fuel – the fuel they were using was too elastic. Once you pressurize it, it will reverberate and it is not very strong, so as it gets thinner it essentially breaks chunks off and you lose a lot of fuel. So I switched that to a structurally very hard polymer. And second, I could see that when pouring it, they just weren’t a good idea. I switched that to additive manufacturing. “
With additive manufacturing, which involves extruding material to build a structure over time, rather than pouring a liquid into a mold and letting it harden, you can do things that are impossible with molding, including building more deliberately, a lot structured interior parts. If you’ve seen home 3D printing before, this is like the criss-cross pattern you see in larger solids to add stiffness or support to the exterior surfaces. It found there was a lot of potential unleashed for solid rocket pellets.
“With additive manufacturing, I was able to do something that no one had done before. And that’s supposed to create a sophisticated internal structure that you can’t do with shapes, ”he said. “With these internal structures we were able to significantly improve the performance of the rocket engine and make it very reliable and also very safe. Those were the main features I was aiming for.”
Firehawk now holds five patents related to 3D printing rocket fuel and has already run 32 hot-fire tests with 200 and 500 pounds of thrust to verify that its design actually works. The startup is also working on an engine with a thrust of 5,000 pounds (roughly equivalent to Rocket Lab) Electron’s second phase), which is due to be tested later this year in a new facility being built for that purpose.
As mentioned earlier, current launch companies are already using much older, but still effective, missile technologies. So why bother with a new breed of hybrid engine design? For a number of reasons, but efficiency and security are the most important among them.
Firehawk’s fuel is much safer to store, transport, and handle because it cannot accidentally explode when the fuel and oxidizer are separated. It’s also non-toxic and only produces emissions that are “environmentally friendly” according to Firehawk. Safe handling of existing rocket fuel options for large launch vehicles requires a great deal of special care and safety, as well as training, which translates into time and money.
Firehawk can also offer custom engine designs in 4 to 6 months, while typical development of new rocket engines based on existing technology typically takes 5 to 7 years. This time saving also translates into significant budget savings – on the order of hundreds of millions of dollars – meaning new and better missiles can be iterated faster without the need for long periods of use between generations to recover the initial R&D costs to bring in.
The fuel can also be stored and transported for long periods of time and possibly even stopped and restarted during flight. This means that longer and more complex missions can be carried out at a far lower cost than ever before. Apparently, according to CEO Edwards, the potential has generated a lot of interest from both potential commercial and government customers.
Earlier this year, Firehawk Aerospace completed a $ 2 million startup round from investors including Victorum Capital, Achieve Capital and Harlow Capital Management. Currently they want to expand the team, especially with dedicated engineers who want to work on the future of the rocket propulsion system. It is also in the process of working with a number of potential partners and letters of intent to commercialize its technology.