Yielding Lighter Weight, High-End Composite Hardware
Another centre of technology innovation is at Huntsville, Alabama-based Cimarron Composites. Tom DeLay, the company’s General Manager, succinctly framed one aerospace and defence community challenge: “For things flying in A&D, mass is very important.”
To that end, Cimarron’s current focus is on delivering lighter weight fuel tanks and other onboard cylinders to new start-up, fast response, nimble rocket companies, to other companies for nanosatellites, and yet other customers in the defence and adjacent energy sectors. To that end, “we’re developing new technologies for the fuel tanks for the rockets that save a lot of mass,” the community veteran pointed out.
And this is a challenge, as diverse liquefied fuels (kerosene, methane and others) and liquid oxygen used in contemporary fuel tanks, comprise up to 80% of a rocket’s dry mass. Beyond fuel tanks, Cimarron also produces high pressure vessels which also hold gases like helium which, in turn, pressurize the fuel tank or start the engines. While this market space is looking for faster built and more cost-effective cylinders, they must also be lighter weight – enter Cimarron’s innovations in cutting-edge composite technologies.
Asked about the weight of a new, composite fuel tank on the conference floor, compared to current models in A&D community fleets, Mr. DeLay responded: “About one-fourth.”
Several flight sets using this new tank have been built for an unspecified customer. The industry executive shared some of his “secret sauce” which lead to such reductions in its fuel tanks and associated products. “A lot of the carbon fibres we use are commercially available. We’re very careful which fibres and fabrics we use – and we’re combining this with resin chemistry that holds it all together. That is one of the key issues because it allows the vessel to give and take, and stretch, and not crack and leak with your cold temperatures.”
One product, liquid oxygen, may be -183°C (-297°F) and is very reactive. Mr DeLay continued: “Since we’re able to make something this elite, we make them thinner.”
Beyond vessels that weigh less, Cimarron is also responding to the defence sector’s requirement for impact damage tolerance. To that end, “we’ve added some ‘novel technologies’ to the materiels so that it survives, for instance, a .50cal bullet impact without fragmentation,” he added.
Cimarron has a burgeoning customer list, having delivered high pressure hydrogen cylinders for US Navy underwater reconnaissance vehicles, breathing air flasks for Special Forces units, “several thousand vessels,” to an unnamed commercial rocket concern, and several other end users.