Rotary valve might help manned space flights to Mars
Washington: A rotary fuel delivery valve developed by a University of Alabama in Huntsville team just might help manned space flights travel to other planets one day.
Dr. James Blackmon, a principal research engineer at the university's Propulsion Research Center who led the team, said it could also have practical terrestrial applications.
He figures that to travel to places like Mars and beyond we'll first have to decide what kind of fuel delivery system we'll use to feed the rocket engines and then we'll have to determine how we're going to rebuild or maintain that system during long stays in space. That's where the new valve comes in.
"There are two primary propellant feed systems, a pressurized system and a turbo pump system," he said.
The pressurized system uses tank pressure to deliver fuel. These are fine as long as the system uses less than 300 psi pressure, he stated.
The turbo pump system uses an exhaust gas generator to power the pump and it works up to 3,000 psi and the higher pressure gives higher performance.
A third system known as sequential pumping lies between those two and may be best suited for long-distance travel. In that configuration, three fuel tanks are pressurized in sequential rotation from a main tank. As the first tank is about to be expended, valves switch from it to the second tank, and then subsequently to the third tank, then back to the first tank, and so on. Tanks not being used to fire the engine are being recharged in rotation from the main tank.
"This system gives you both high pressure and fail operational ability," Dr. Blackmon said.
Rather than redundancy, where parts are duplicated so new ones can take over for failed ones, fail operational ability means that even if components in the system fail, the engine will continue to operate.
The sequential system has a three to one advantage because of its lower weight, lower cost and greater reliability, but if there's one drawback to it, it's the valves.
"Valves are often the source of trouble in spaceflight. You have these plunger valves slamming open or slamming closed, or ball valves clunking full open and clunking full closed," Dr. Blackmon said.
That's a lot of wear and tear over time, and here is where the new rotary valve excels. It uses a mechanism operated by one of two redundant motors to turn a shaft and slide a configured recess to a port, opening that port for either fuel delivery or recharge. One valve can control filling and emptying of all three rotational fuel tanks in the sequential system, and it can replace multiple older style valves with a device that is lower weight, lower cost and more reliable.
"You can do it with standard valves but we think it's better to do it with this because a standard valve is so difficult to repair," Dr. Blackmon said. When it comes time for service, the rotational valve is an easy fix.
"You can use a Crescent wrench and take it apart. It uses simple tools to fix it, and you can do it in space. If you're going to Mars and an astronaut had to fix it, you could fix it easily with a valve repair kit without having to remove the valve. You just block it off and fix it," said Dr. Blackmon.
For now, Dr. Blackmon is also looking at uses for the valve in industrial flow control.