NASA SBIR Contract to Fund XCOR Composite Fuel Tank Development

XCOR's Lynx suborbital vehicle

NASA recently announced that it would be conducting contract negotiations for 350 projects under its SBIR and STTR programs, which are aimed at promoting space technology development by small businesses. Parabolic Arc will be looking at a number of the proposals involving NewSpace companies that it regularly covers or which encompass interesting technologies.

LOCATION:Mojave, Calif.
PROPOSAL TITLE:Cryogenic Composite Tank Fabrication for Reusable Launch Vehicles
SUBTOPIC TITLE:Advanced Composite Tank and Materials Technologies


XCOR has conducted extensive research and development, and material characterization analysis of a nonflammable, high-strength, lightweight thermoplastic fluoropolymer composite material, trademarked NonburniteTM, which is suitable for making reusable, reliable, low cost cryogenic tanks and structures for space flight service.

XCOR’s composite material is lighter than metal, and unlike graphite/epoxy, nonflammable. The material is immune to microcracking, has a low coefficient of thermal expansion (CTE), and is capable of withstanding hundreds of cryogenic temperature cycles. Additionally, it is durable, repairable, and can withstand extreme hot and cold temperatures. The fluoropolymer composite maintains strength and flexibility at extreme temperatures (-260 to plus 280 degrees C/-436 to plus 536 degrees F).Low CTE also allows this composite to be built into a vehicle’s primary structure. Used as the internal skin in a sandwich structure (Nonburnite, foam, and carbon/epoxy) the composite skin-foam-skin material provides both thermal insulation and structure.

These features, along with the high strength-to-weight ratio, make it an enabling technology for building lighter, highly reusable, and more robust propellant tanks, thus reducing need for maintenance between flights. Further, XCOR believes significant commercialization opportunities exist for the material after its manufacturing processes have matured.


This proposed effort has particular relevance to several key programs at NASA. First, the Space Operations Mission Directorate (SOMD) provides a foundation of science and technology for many aspects of manned and robotic space travel and payloads ranging from micro satellites to manned systems. The pursuit of high reliability, safety and affordability is clearly relevant as it applies to NonburniteTM and SOMD’s objectives. The use of a human rated (nonflammable) cryogenically capable, reliable, high strength, low weight composite structures could save significant weight throughout the Orion and Heavy Lift Crew Exploration vehicle programs. The Human Research Program (HRP) seeks to perform advanced high risk technology development in support of human exploration systems. The fundamental nature of Nonburnite also has particular potential relevance to HRP. Finally, the Exploration Technology Development Program (ETDP) at Langley Research Center (LaRC) has a mission to look at advanced technology insertion into space vehicle programs.


XCOR believes there are significant commercialization opportunities for the material once manufacturing processes are matured. NonburniteTM is suitable for lightweight, linerless oxygen-compatible tanks for propulsion, fuel cell, life support, and related infrastructure applications, including aircraft cargo hold structures and containers, high and low temperature environments where flammability is of concern, and large volume commercial or retail applications such as in home oxygen tanks that are lighter weight and easier to maneuver by typically elderly or infirm users.

Estimated Technology Readiness Level (TRL) at beginning and end of contract:
Begin: 3
End: 5