NASA tests first 3D rocket engine with Copper & Inconel

An image from a microscope reveals how the two metals, copper alloy and Inconel, mix and interlock to form a strong bond created by the innovative 3-D printing process during manufacturing of the igniter prototype. Credits: NASA/UAH/Judy Schneider

Engineers at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, tested NASA’s first 3-D printed rocket engine prototype part made of two different metal alloys through an innovative advanced manufacturing process.

Engineers at Marshall of ERC, Inc. of Huntsville, Alabama, supporting Marshall’s Engine Components Development and Technology branch, low-pressure hot-fire tested the prototype more than 30 times during July to demonstrate the functionality of the igniter.

A rocket engine igniter is used to initiate an engine’s start sequence and is one of many complex parts made of many different materials. In traditional manufacturing, igniters are built using a process called brazing. The brazing process requires a significant amount of manual labor leading to higher costs and longer manufacturing time.

For this prototype igniter, the two metals – a copper alloy and Inconel — were joined together using a unique hybrid 3-D printing process called automated blown powder laser deposition. The hybrid process can freely alternate between freeform 3-D printing and machining within the part before the exterior is finished and closed off.