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NASA launch tanks: Vickers visits Composites Conference Melbourne 4th March, 2013

6 March 2013

Under the leadership of Mr John Vickers, an engineering team at the Materials and Processes Laboratory, NASA, has devised an enormous ten metre wide moulded cryotank from ultra light weight, strong and non-corrosive ‘composite’ materials as a revolutionary new hydrogen fuel tank with the potential to be used for NASA’s heavy-lift launch vehicles. Designed to replace the use of aluminium, benefits for NASA are estimated at 30% weight savings, as compare to aluminium, and 25% cost savings. Cost savings will be considerable for a tank of this large size as it will eliminate the number of launches needed to propel mass into space. An engineer and contributor to national US science initiatives, Mr Vickers’ has equal expertise in manufacturing, and he is keen for these new ‘out-of-autoclave’ composite technologies to stimulate Small to Medium Enterprises (SMEs) in composites manufacture in Australia. Mr Vickers is currently in Melbourne for the Composites Australia & CRC for Advanced Composites Structures 2013 Conference at Crown Towers, Southbank, 4 to 5 March, along with composite industry leaders and experts, including Professor Takashi Ishikawa, who directs the Composite Engineering Research Center (CERC), Nagoya University, Japan. Vickers described how NASA’s Composite Cryotank Project is moving through the critical mid-point in technological maturation. The project also forms part of the Game Changing mission of NASA, delivering “ … technology knowledge that is used internally for NASA missions – as well as externally throughout the aerospace community.” Mr Vickers discussed how recent ‘out-of-autoclave’ advanced carbon fibre composites manufacturing technologies (that include Resin Transfer Moulding RTM, Vacuum-Assisted Resin Transfer Moulding (VARTM) and balanced pressure fluid moulding) can cut investment costs significantly. NASA initiated the Cryotank Project by examining ‘autoclave’ approaches – curing composites at very high pressure for optimal strength and minimal risk of flawing – then shifted to the major opportunities presented using ‘out-of-autoclave’. Mr Vickers said a NASA cryotank prototype is likely to be launch tested in 2014. Flow-on benefits to the public will include composite storage tanks needed for new forms of renewable energy.