Entering the space race sees the AFRC bring jobs back to the UK

Posted on 16 Aug 2019 by Jonny Williamson

The University of Strathclyde’s Advanced Forming Research Centre (AFRC) is using its expertise in forming and forging to bring the manufacture of space propellant tanks back to the UK.

A two-year collaboration, funded by the European Space Agency (ESA), will see the AFRC collaborate with Airbus Defence and Space (DS) and TWI to explore advanced manufacturing methods for the tanks.

The project will look at making the design more efficient and economical by producing the initial component to as near to net-shape as possible, substantially reducing machining time and material waste of expensive metals such as titanium alloys – which can cost up to $60 per kilo.

Dr Jill Miscandlon, project lead at the AFRC.

Dr Jill Miscandlon, project lead at the AFRC.

Formerly produced in the UK, Airbus DS currently purchases its fuel tanks from Germany or the US. Key to the project is bringing production back to the UK and sharing outputs with the wider supply chain.

Dr Jill Miscandlon, project lead at the AFRC, explained: “A tank is generally made of two hemispherical domes and a cylindrical section. The parts are forged, heat-treated and machined down to the required final thickness before they are welded together.

“They are very thin structures and machining them down from the original thickness results in significant material waste, in addition to the high cost of the machining.”

According to Dr Miscandlon, 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 vaporise upon meeting the upper atmosphere so as not to present a risk to people and facilities on Earth.

The AFRC and Airbus DS are bringing in welding research specialist TWI to help decide the chosen method for producing the tanks. Phase one, an exploration of trade-off and identification of technique, is currently underway.

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

Propellant tanks used to be manufactured in the UK but the capability was lost when the parent company of the firm involved took the production back to Germany.

Renato Bellarosa, head of tank products and R&T manager at Airbus DS, commented that the successful completion of this programme also held “export potential”.

“We have customers overseas who are big players in satellite manufacture whom we believe, would be interested in this new manufacturing approach,” he said.

The AFRC is one of many organisations tapping into Scotland’s growing space sector. It was recently revealed that more small satellites are built in Glasgow than anywhere else in Europe, while the UK’s first ever spaceport is set to be built in Sutherland in the Scottish Highlands.