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Aerospace research in Alabama powers new industry discoveries

Researchers in Alabama are leading efforts to expand and sharpen the capabilities of the global aerospace and aviation industries. Their focus varies widely, from deep space exploration to military helicopter operations, with the projects happening in laboratories across the state.

“Some of the most innovative research to navigate new frontiers in space and defense is happening here in Alabama,” said Greg Canfield, Secretary of the Alabama Department of Commerce.

“This work will help advance the goals and strategies of our government and industry partners at home and in markets they serve around the world.”

The research ties into diverse fields of interest for key players in the aerospace, aviation and defense industries, who are gathered this week at the 2022 Farnborough International Airshow, near London. An Alabama team is on the ground at the global industry’s most important business event this year.

Alabama aerospace industry
Nilesh Vishe, doctoral student in aerospace engineering and mechanics at The University of Alabama, works in the lab on a test specimen part of exploring a new way to repair laminated composites. (Image: UA)

In one notable project, scientists at the University of Alabama in Huntsville are focused on a next-generation “bubble-through” rocket engine that packs a tremendous punch.

In the novel concept, called centrifugal nuclear thermal propulsion, hydrogen gas is bubbled through a rotating liquid uranium core in the engine via a porous cylinder wall, causing the gas to rapidly expand and provide thrust for the vehicle.

Such an engine has the potential to power spacecraft on “higher energy trajectories that will shorten the trip time to and from Mars and destinations throughout the solar system,” said Dr. Dale Thomas, the project’s principal investigator and an eminent scholar in systems engineering at UAH.

The work is being done under a research contract for the Space Nuclear Propulsion Project Office at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville.

UAH is leading a collaboration of universities across the nation, including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of Michigan, the University of Rhode Island, Pennsylvania State University and Drexel University.


Alabama aerospace industry
At The University of Alabama, Dr. David Dixon, center, works on equipment built to test the hydrogen fuel, with graduate student Eddy Lontchi, left, and Dr. Kyle Edwards, a post-doctoral researcher. (Image: UA)

Other industry research in the state includes a project at the University of Alabama to develop a novel hydrogen fuel for high-velocity missiles.

Such missiles — long-range, precision-fire weapons that provide critical defense for the U.S. — need to maintain high speeds during flight to potentially neutralize enemy missiles.

“Defensive missiles need to be fast and have extended range capability so as to hit its target well outside the protected area, to minimize or negate damage within the area being protected,” said Dr. David Dixon, UA chemistry professor with extensive experience in hydrogen fuel research.

Early results of the new program show promise, to allow missiles to maintain those high speeds.

The U.S. Department of Defense is providing $9 million that will fund a testing facility at the university for phase-changing hydrogen fuel research.

In another research project at UA, scientists are exploring ways for materials often used in airplanes, rocket motors and other aerospace and aviation applications to repair themselves.

The project uses sensors to predict, detect and evaluate structural issues, and also activate heat-induced repair in laminated composites. The goal is to help the materials last longer, saving time and money, while also facilitating hard-to-access repairs.

“This is a paradigm shift of what can be done structurally with materials,” said Dr. Samit Roy, UA aerospace engineering and mechanics professor. “Our method is conditioned-based health monitoring and healing that can keep materials in service without immediate removal or replacement, and that is critical in space because you can’t turn back halfway to Mars.”

So far, the research has shown that integrating thermoplastics with shape-memory properties into the composite materials can self-repair cracks by melting, reforming and rejoining the material.

The work is being supported by the U.S. Air Force Office of Scientific Research and is also being eyed by NASA as it seeks to improve the durability of spacecraft materials for longer missions.


Not all aerospace research in Alabama happens at a university.

Fort Rucker, the U.S. Army base in Southeast Alabama that is the primary training center for Army helicopter pilots, also is home to cutting-edge research dedicated to supporting aviators and their equipment.

The U.S. Army Aeromedical Research Laboratory focuses on a wide range of issues involving soldier performance, protection, safety and casualty care, in combat and beyond.

Its research platforms include laboratories for electro-optics, night vision and hypoxia, as well as flight and ride simulators.

One of the ways the USAARL contributes to Army research is through the use and study of the HH-60 MEDEVAC Black Hawk helicopter, which is equipped with in-flight measurement systems to monitor and record real-time physiological and cognitive stressors for aviators.

The USAARL in April presented several displays, including the HH-60M, at an Army research and development exhibition at Fort Detrick, Maryland.

Jason Gerstner, an Alabama native and research pilot who serves as chief of the flight systems branch at USAARL, said the event was a great opportunity to demonstrate the agency’s research capabilities to Army officials and their families.

“It’s great to see that enjoyment to young kids on their faces, because those are our future aviators, scientists and researchers,” he said. “Giving them a small glimpse of what opportunities may exist for them goes a long way for myself and my cohorts.”


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