USC Viterbi 3D printed engines are building rocket scientists of the future

The Liquid Propulsion Lab (LPL) at the University of Southern California’s Viterbi School of Engineering has been quietly working on a fleet of 3D printed rocket engines. Made entirely on campus in Los Angeles, the most recent test firing was conducted by the group in the Mojave Desert, and produced 600 pounds of thrust.

Though relatively small as far as thrusters go, this engine (named James) is a necessary development step in the group’s pursuit of more powerful engines, and is leading students to dream jobs in some of the most well-established aerospace companies and and challenging startups in the industry.

Launching into space

These days, rocket engine development seems incomplete without the application of additive manufacturing techniques. This is due, in part, the challenge of making lighter, more eco-friendly engines, requirements needed to make the kit more efficient, compliant, and more cost-effective for manufacturers and customers.

SpaceX, the private space travel provider of Grimes’ boyfriend, uses 3D printing in its SuperDraco engine. U.S. private aerospace manufacturer Rocket Lab, that recently closed $140 million in Series E funding, uses additive manufacturing to make its Rutherford engine.

Traditional aerospace companies, like Rolls-Royce and Lockheed Martin, also have programs in place to implement the technology.

By way of some explanation Jordan Noone, USC Viterbi alumni, former lead of the USC Rocket Propulsion Lab, and CTO and co-founder of 3D printing-powered space exploration technology startup Relativity Space, says, “Traditional manufacturing relies on fixed tooling – think of casting molds or forging equipment. This makes it slow and expensive to modify a design,”

“With printing, you can make those changes in software and go straight to printing your new design.”

Test firing of one of LPL's 3D pritned engines with observable Mach diamonds. Photos via USC Liquid Propulsion Lab
Test firing of one of LPL’s 3D pritned engines with observable Mach diamonds. Photos via USC Liquid Propulsion Lab

The “most powerful” student-built engine

At USC Viterbi, the James engine and its bigger brother Balerion, are 3D printed using Inconel 718, a high strength superalloy, typically processed in powdered form. After printing, it is then finished on-site in the university’s machine shop.

The Balerion engine in particular has been produced in the lab’s collaboration with the Kyushu Institute of Technology in Japan. It weighs one ton in total, and is capable of 2,250 pounds of thrust. With these specifications, it is believed to be one of the most powerful student-built engines in the world, and is due to be tested as part of flight vehicle in spring 2019. During this test, two Balerion engines will be challenged with launching a payload to 20,000 feet, half the height of commercial airplane flights.

Building a 3D printing savvy workforce 

Built on the success of such projects the USC Viterbi LPL has seen its students join SpaceX, Northrop Grumman, Firefly Space Systems, Vector Space and Generation Orbit on graduation.

Jan Fessl, co-lead engineer of LPL and USC Viterbi masters student, is responsible for helping to build the team’s workforce. He says, “The main goal of the lab is to create an environment that people can grow themselves and then be able to get their dream job,”

“If you build up the process, the results are going to come by itself.”

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Featured image shows the USC Liquid Propulsion Lab at test site in the Mojave Desert. Photo via USC Viterbi