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AFRC and Airbus DS aim to bring fuel tank production for spacecraft back to UK

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The Advanced Forming Research Centre (AFRC) at the University of Strathclyde in Scotland has entered into a new partnership with Airbus Defence and Space (Airbus DS) and TWI Ltd to bring the production of space propellant tanks back to the UK. The agreement marks the AFRC’s first foray into the space industry.

Funded by the European Space Agency, the joint two-year project will leverage the AFRC’s expertise in forming and forging to inform Airbus DS on which advanced manufacturing processes would be best suited for the tank production. Airbus DS, for its part, will combine the advice with its own research to determine the best way forward, whether it is additive manufacturing, metal forming or superplastic forming.

One of the main goals of the partnership is to make the design of the propellant tanks more efficient and economical by manufacturing the initial component as precisely as possible (or as near to net-shape as possible) so that subsequent machining time and costs are lower and less metal material is wasted.

Presently, Airbus DS receives its fuel tanks primarily from Germany and the United States. The project, however, envisages a future in which the aerospace company can purchase propellant tanks made in the UK, where production used to take place. The choice to work with a university in Scotland, and specifically Glasgow, was strategic: the Northern British city produces more small satellites than anywhere else in Europe. The UK’s first spaceport is also to be built in the Scottish Highlands.

AFRC Airbus partnership
Dr. Jill Miscandlon is heading the joint project at the AFRC

Dr. Jill Miscandlon, who is leading the project at the AFRC, said: “Airbus DS is at the forefront of the industry and this collaboration sees us looking at the components needed to make the propellant tanks and advising on potential manufacturing methods…Over the past four months, we’ve been looking at methods of achieving near net-shape manufacture, at the same time maintaining the material properties because in space it has to be structurally sound.

“The tanks must be strong enough to store propellant, such as Hydrazine or Xenon gas, under high pressure during a mission’s lifetime, which could be more than 25 years. At the same time, for some un-controlled re-entry LEO (Low Earth Orbit) satellite platforms, upon return, they should vaporize upon meeting the upper atmosphere so not to present a risk to people and facilities on Earth.”

TWI Ltd, a welding research organization, will ultimately help the two parties to choose the method for producing the tanks once evaluations of the various advanced manufacturing methods has completed.

“Airbus DS will merge their own research experience with our study and decide on the chosen technique to take forward,” said Dr. Miscandlon. “This could be metal forming, superplastic forming or additive manufacturing processes—all of which would produce the tank parts at close to net shape.

“Key to the project is making components in a shorter lead-time and wasting less expensive material, which is essential with titanium alloys costing up to $60 per kilo, depending on alloy type and manufacturing route. We are also focused on sharing the project outputs with the wider supply chain here in the UK.”

Professor Keith Ridgway, Executive Chairman of the AFRC, added: This is a great project that highlights the benefits of aligning advanced manufacturing research with the UK’s growing space industry. It also taps into the University of Strathclyde’s focus on innovation in space, which is being developed through its Technology and Innovation Centre within the Glasgow City Innovation District, bringing together researchers and high-growth firms with technology and creative start-ups, to work side-by-side.”

I don’t know about you, but our money is on additive manufacturing being selected for the fuel tank production!

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Tess Boissonneault

Tess Boissonneault is a Montreal-based content writer and editor with five years of experience covering the additive manufacturing world. She has a particular interest in amplifying the voices of women working within the industry and is an avid follower of the ever-evolving AM sector. Tess holds a master's degree in Media Studies from the University of Amsterdam.

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