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University of Sheffield students 3D print liquid rocket engine

The regen-cooled engine is the first metallic 3D printed liquid rocket engine to be built and successfully tested by students in the UK

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Students at the University of Sheffield have built a liquid rocket engine – similar to the kind used by companies such as SpaceX – using 3D printing. The ‘SunFire’ engine, developed by a team of Sheffield engineering and science students, is the first metallic 3D printed liquid rocket engine to be built and successfully tested by students in the UK.

It’s the most powerful student-built engine, and uses fuel and an oxidizer rather than breathing in oxygen like a jet engine. It’s also the first that is regen-cooled – using fuel to cool the combustion chamber before it is burnt, which increases the engine’s efficiency and saves weight.

The Sheffield students have successfully hot-fired (tested) the engine as part of a week-long competition called ‘Race to Space’, in which teams of students from universities across the UK tested rocket engines they have built over the last two academic years. The Race to Space competition week is believed to have set an unofficial world record for the number of different hybrid/liquid rocket engines hot-fired for the first time on one site in one week.

According to the University, there are only a handful of liquid rocket engines made by students throughout Europe and even fewer regen engines worldwide, and until now, none in the UK made by 3D printing or as powerful as this one.

The Sheffield students built the engine over the last two years outside of their studies as part of the University of Sheffield’s Space Initiative – a program to help STEM students use their skills to tackle some of the space industry’s biggest challenges and help them develop careers in the industry after graduation.

Students in the team – known as Sunride – hope to eventually use the engine to power one of their own rockets to the edge of space and become the first UK student-led team to launch beyond the Kármán line which borders Earth’s atmosphere 62 miles above sea level. The team already holds the UK altitude record for an amateur rocket, which they achieved in 2019.

The University of Sheffield’s Royce Discovery Centre – a research center developing the next generation of materials to meet the needs of UK manufacturing – was instrumental in trialing the laser-powder-bed metallic 3D printing that was used to build the engine. The University’s Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC) and Faculty of Engineering machined the engine post-printing.

“The hot-fire test of our engine was a day I’ll never forget. From coming up with the idea in a coffee shop with two friends over two years ago, it was amazing when we finally got to fire our rocket engine! Being involved with the SunFire program provided me with an opportunity to take the engineering science I had learned about in lectures and translate these learnings into a real-world practical application,” said Henry Saunders, who led the team last year and is now doing a Ph.D. at the University of Sheffield’s Royce Discovery Centre in 3D printing. “This for me was where the real excitement and learning reinforcements came from, not just seeing a rocket engine on a PowerPoint slide with some equations next to it, but actually being involved in building a rocket engine from scratch. The equations only get you so far, the real learning, for me, came from trying things, failing, and then eventually succeeding.”

“Two years and countless hours of hard work later, the successful hot-fire of our engine got us jumping for the most unforgettable five seconds of our lives! This achievement is a testament to the incredible talent and commitment of our Project SunFire team members and leads, and to the tireless mentorship and supervision of Dr. Alistair John,” said Dana Arabiyat, an engineering graduate and former Sunride Project Manager, who is now working at Rolls-Royce.

“Additive manufacturing is increasingly being used by rocket companies such as SpaceX as it allows you to build complex, lightweight custom geometries that would not be possible using traditional methods. For example, the cooling channels in our engine, which stop the engine melting despite the 2,000°C combustion temperature, can only be made using 3D printing,” said Dr. Alistair John, Deputy Director of Aerospace Engineering at the University of Sheffield, who supervised the team. “Extra-curricular activities such as Sunride and the Race to Space initiative are hugely important as they allow students to apply the knowledge from their degree and push the boundaries of what they can achieve. It is hugely important for the UK space sector that we give our students hands-on, practical experience to develop the skills industry needs.”

The SunFire engine was test fired at Airborne Engineering at the Westcott Space Cluster and was 3D printed at the Satellite Applications Catapult with the print process optimization work done under the MAPP EPRSC future manufacturing hub.

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