Nickel Alloys in Space (marketing department of Shanghai HY Industry Co., Ltd)
2022 marks the beginning of a new decade of space exploration and innovation, in which nickel-containing alloys play an important role in many applications, including rocket, wheel and catalyst manufacturing.
SpaceX, a company dedicated to aerospace equipment manufacturing and repeatable space transportation, uses a nickel-containing 304 (S30400) stainless steel to manufacture Starships and super-heavy rockets. SpaceX chose stainless steel for this mission, which is less expensive than carbon fiber, which costs more than sixty times more per kilogram than stainless steel. Stainless steel is also much more heat resistant than carbon fiber or other metals such as aluminum, and therefore requires far less, or possibly even, thermal insulation.
Meanwhile, NASA is exploring the potential use of nickel-containing materials in probe wheels. Rubber wheels are impractical on the moon or Mars, so the original Apollo lunar rover wheels were made of spring steel. But spring steel wheels on large and heavy wheels designed to be used on Mars can deform. To solve this problem, NASA is developing a metal mesh tire made of Nitinol (UNS N01555), a nickel-titanium alloy, that has shape memory properties that can handle 30 times the deformation of a spring steel wheel.
NASA engineers mounted the latest SMA spring tires on a test stand. This model weighs 7kg, can carry twice the load of the previous model, and performs better in deep space temperatures.
Equipped with a Raptor rocket engine, the SpaceX Starship is one of the first Starships powered by liquid methane and liquid oxygen with the goal of eventually manning people to Mars, and is designed to last 1,000 times. Methane was chosen to make rocket fuel on Mars for the return journey. Methane can be produced using carbon dioxide and hydrogen through the Chabatier reaction, in which hydrogen reacts with carbon dioxide over a catalyst at high temperature (optimal temperature 300-400°C) and high pressure to produce methane and water. Of these, nickel is a catalyst that can be used.
The Martian atmosphere is 95 percent carbon dioxide, and NASA has confirmed the presence of water on Mars, the raw materials needed to generate rocket boosters such as methane and oxygen, as well as the oxygen for astronauts to breathe. Nickel-containing materials are also required by the red planet’s lower ambient temperature and the low temperatures required to generate liquefied methane, hydrogen and oxygen.
Monel K-500 (N05500) also has excellent ductility at low temperatures and is flame resistant in pure oxygen. This makes it the preferred choice for an oxygen booster pump that supplies oxygen to rocket engines.
monolithic rocket engine （ Nickel Alloys in Space ）
Due to its high strength and toughness, Inconel 718 alloy (N07718) can be used in aircraft turbojet engines, it is a precipitation hardenable nickel-chromium alloy. It can also be used in rocket engines and pressure vessels, and can handle cryogenic liquefied gases and achieve boost at temperatures as low as -250°C. But the properties of alloy 718 make it more difficult to machine and form than other materials. The investment casting process can be problematic because alloy 718 is susceptible to porosity, segregation, and very coarse grain size, and therefore, requires subsequent processing steps.
What is the solution? 3D printing can more efficiently utilize nickel-based alloys such as 718 alloys in high-performance applications with complex designs. 3D printing makes it easier to process alloy 718 and retains the material properties well. The process avoids welding and machining and, therefore, greatly reduces material waste. The benefits of this fabrication method were demonstrated by 3D printing a prototype of a 718 alloy rocket engine. The prototype was designed entirely through artificial intelligence.
Unlike conventional rocket engines, which consist of individually designed and assembled components, the 3D printed prototype is a continuous whole. It contains the combustion chamber where fuel and oxidant burn, and surface channels that circulate the fuel to cool the combustion chamber and avoid overheating. The monolithic construction method guarantees the lightest weight and the most efficient cooling, allowing the rocket to achieve the best possible performance.
In the Vulcan II rocket project at the University of California, San Diego, 3D printing is also used to make the Ignus II 718 alloy rocket engine.
For every new application in the future, nickel will help further space exploration.
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