Advancements of Copper-Based Alloys in Rocket Engines

Category Space

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NASA's Game Changing Development program funded the development of copper-based alloys known as Glenn Research Copper (GRCop). GRCop is designed for high-performance rocket engines, can tolerate temperatures up to 40% higher than traditional copper alloys, and the most recent iteration, GRCop-42, uses advanced 3D computer models and Additive Manufacturing methods to improve performance and reduce weight and costs.

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Created at NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland under the agency’s Game Changing Development program, this family of copper-based alloys known as Glenn Research Copper, or GRCop, are designed for use in combustion chambers of high performance rocket engines. A combination of copper, chromium, and niobium, GRCop is optimized for high strength, high thermal conductivity, high creep resistance – which allows more stress and strain in high temperature applications – and good low cycle fatigue ­– which prevents material failures –above 900 degrees Farenheit. They tolerate temperatures up to 40% higher than traditional copper alloys, which leads to higher performance components and reusability.

GRCop-42 was designed for use in the Terran 1 Rocket Engines

Dr. David Ellis developed the GRCop family of alloys as a NASA-supported graduate student during the space shuttle era. He continued to mature the alloys and their applications throughout his career.

The most recent iteration, named GRCop-42, uses a variety of additive manufacturing methods to create single-piece and multi-material combustion chambers and thrust chamber assemblies for rocket engines. These processes improved the performance, while significantly reducing weight and costs of thrust chamber components.

These alloys have a very wide variety of uses in aerospace applications

NASA found that the GRCop alloys pair very well with the latest additive manufacturing methods.Modern manufacturing methods such as laser powder bed fusion and directed energy deposition are two approaches that can be used to build GRCop parts for many aerospace applications, such as the Terran 1 rocket engines.

In laser powder bed fusion, a 3D computer model is sliced into thin layers digitally. Then, a powder bed machine, which acts like a printer, begins a process of spreading and fusing thin layers of powder atop one another, thousands of times over to form a complete part. This process of bonding layers together results in materials strength that is comparable to forged metal. The advantage of this method is that finely detailed parts can be created, such as nozzles and cooling channels used for combustion chambers and nozzles.

Since their conception, the alloys have gone under several iterations

The directed energy deposition (DED) process uses a laser to create a melt pool. Powder is then blown into the melt pool and cools creating solid material. The 3D motion of a robot directs the building process to create the entire part with the laser and blown powder. The DED process produces larger shapes and components compared to laser powder bed fusion, but with fewer fine details.

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