Space X founder Elon Musk was not shy about his appreciation for carbon fiber when he unveiled his company’s BFR rocket project a few years ago. Musk believed that carbon fiber would play a key role in helping Space X build a massive space vehicle that would make Mars colonization a reality. Then, seemingly without warning, Musk abandoned carbon fiber in favor of steel.
His company’s rationale for shelving carbon fiber was cost. Understandably, Space X can save a lot of money by building its rocket bodies out of stainless steel. The simple fact of the matter is that it costs a lot less than carbon fiber.
It turns out that Musk’s loss might be someone else’s gain. According to Composites Today, the Australian government recently announced a $3 million investment in a company working on creating lightweight rocket fuel tanks. The company, working in concert with partners from the public and private sector, believes it can produce a carbon fiber fuel tank that will cut the cost of space travel by 25%.
Advanced Materials and Fabricating
Gilmour Space Technologies, Teakle Composites, and the University of Southern Queensland have been working on a $12.5 million project to develop and manufacture cryo tanks for lifting rockets off the ground. The tanks need to be flight-ready from the get-go.
Achieving their mission is forcing the consortium to look at both advanced materials and fabricating methods. They believe they’ve come up with the right solution for both. Their design calls for composite materials and a robotic filament winding process capable of producing a rocket body that can withstand the extreme conditions of space travel.
Key to the project’s money-saving goals is the weight of the rocket bodies. That is one of the reasons composite materials were chosen. Consortium researchers believe their design will reduce overall weight by 30%. As a result, less fuel will be required to get vehicles into space. That is where the financial savings come into play.
Production Costs Unknown
Saving 25% in fuel costs is obviously a good thing. However, what we do not yet know is how much it will cost to produce the fuel tanks. If the tanks are intended to be recycled for multiple flights, researchers could get away with a slightly higher production cost knowing that multiple uses will ultimately bring costs down. If we are looking at single use tanks however, the cost of production has to be lower than the amount of fuel savings or the project becomes moot.
Production costs are usually the biggest hurdle in aerospace composite manufacturing, according to Rock West Composites. Rock West explains that the high cost of production is that which keeps many industries – like the automotive industry – from adopting composites on a larger scale. Remember that it was cost that forced Space X to set aside its plans for carbon fiber and turn attentions to steal.
Proving Space X Wrong
So, is the Australian government and its consortium of aerospace developers picking up where Space X left off? Whether intentionally or not, they are. They may end up proving Space X wrong in the long run. It all depends on whether or not they can make their design a reality without breaking the bank.
To be fair to Space X, the Australian consortium’s project is on an entirely different plane than the Space X project. They might very well be able to achieve all of their goals without coming up with a model that would make sense for Musk’s Mars ambitions. We will have to wait and see.