$24.9M to Develop Vortex Rocket Engine Technology
Orbital Technologies Corp. (Orbitec) in Madison, WI received a $24.9 million indefinite-delivery/ indefinite-quantity with cost-plus-fixed-fee contract to help develop and commercialize Orbitec’s unique vortex rocket engine technology. It’s all part of the US Air Force integrated high payoff rocket propulsion technology program, and the space-based infrared system III (SBIRS III) program will attempt to integrate vortex engine propulsion technology with state-of-the art tank and feed system technology to demonstrate a cohesive universal small launch vehicle capability.
When most of us think of vortex technology, we think of vacuum cleaners. So why are vortex rocket engines so great, and what progress has been made so far?
“Normal” rocket engines channel an explosive reaction through a heat-shielded combustion chamber and then out a nozzle, creating thrust from the opposite reaction to the plasma’s rapid escape. Controlling this process without crisping the rocket requires either a lot of heavy shielding, or regenerative cooling systems that use a lot of complex machinery. This contributes weight and/or more potential points of failure, driving efficiency down and costs up.
On the other hand, what if you could keep the fuel confined to a vortex like the one in your vacuum cleaner? In fact, what if you had two vortexes: an inner one for the fuel, and an outer vortex that confines the first and acts as an insulator? If you could make that process work, the need for all that expensive, heavy heat shielding and heat-countering machinery should vanish – and indeed, test engines have been run in which a 3000 C degree reaction was safely run inside a chamber made of common plexiglass.
All of a sudden, vortex engine technology offers the possibility of:
- Removing complex fuel atomizing machinery in the propellant injectors, as the vortex handles this aspect
- Eliminating the need for leak-prone cooling passages
- Extending the operational lifetimes of combustion chambers
- Making combustion-chamber walls using relatively inexpensive and easier to shape materials – possibly even lightweight composites – instead of expensive alloys.
All in a more stable combustion process. If – IF – this arrangement can be kept stable at higher levels of thrust and therefore more violent reactions.
A 2004 Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) submission notes that:
“Through previous contracted efforts, ORBITEC has demonstrated the fundamental vortex combustion chamber technologies. The remaining technical challenges include increasing engine size and thrust level, and qualifying these new designs for manned and unmanned flight applications. In addition, it is important to improve the basic understanding of the interactions between the thrust chamber geometry [i.e. shape], the vortex flow field phenomena, and the overall performance of the engine.”
Scaling the demonstration engines of 1,000-10,000 pounds thrust to the 100,000 pounds or more required for a low-cost launch vehicle is a formidable challenge – hence the recent contract award.
The US Air Force can issue delivery orders totaling up to $24.9 million; at this time, $3.9 million has been committed. Negotiations were complete July 2006, and the contract will end in July 2011 even if funds still remain. The Air Force Research Laboratory at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, OH issued the contract (FA8650-06-D-2605).
- Orbitec – Projects
- NASA SBIR 2004 Solicitation – FORM B – Proposal Summary For Proposal Number 04 X6.01-7813
- Marshall Space Flight Center Brief (Sept 2000) – Vortex-Fired Liquid-Fuel Rocket Combustion Chambers. Good basic explanation.
- Everything^2 – Vortex Engine
- Space Times (March/April 2006) – The Vortex-Cooled Chamber Wall Engine: A Tamed Tornado [PDF format]