U-M Partners on $4.2M Grant to Improve Rocket Engine Safety

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A team of researchers at The University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Purdue University, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have been awarded a $4.2 million grant from the Air Force Research Laboratories and the Air Force Office of Scientific Research to create rocket engines without combustion instabilities that can cause explosions.

“Unfortunately, even with the tremendous advances in computing over the past 50 years, we are still not in a situation to perform efficient simulations to help designers understand and avoid combustion instabilities,” says Karthik Duraisamy, assistant professor of aerospace engineering and director of the new Center of Excellence on Rocket Combustor Dynamics.

Duraisamy says explosions have been a problem for the space program since the Apollo program, and is one of the reasons why some U.S. military and commercial satellite launches rely on Russian rocket engines to get to space.

Helping to Solve the problem, Duraisamy says, will take using mathematical techniques that can process a large cache of simulation data to extract information and create efficient physical models, using algorithms and facilities developed at the university specifically for this project. He says researchers will then combine the data with physical models of the flow and flames inside the engine, testing and refining those models while they run.

Purdue has been building and testing rocket engines for decades. Propulsion researchers there, led by William Anderson, a professor of aeronautics and astronautics, will provide their expertise of the physics inside rocket engines and combustors. Researchers at MIT, led by Karen Willcox, co-director of the MIT Center for Computational Engineering, will consult on simplifying the computational models so that it is feasible to run them in a reasonable amount of time. Data sources include extensive experiments and simulations performed at Purdue and by the Air Force.

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