Boeing Develops Game-Changing Composite Propellant Tank

Credit: NASA/MSFC/Emmett Given

HUNTSVILLE, Ala. (NASA PR) — A 2.4-meter-diameter propellant tank made of composite materials arrived on Nov. 20, 2012 at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., where engineers are preparing it for testing.

Composite tanks have the potential to significantly reduce the cost and weight for heavy-lift launch vehicles and for other future in-space missions. The tank’s arrival marks a significant milestone that was made possible because of contributions made over the last year by multiple NASA centers and The Boeing Company, the prime contractor for the project.

This is the largest composite tank ever produced with new materials that do not require autoclave processing. Complex autoclaves for processing large composite structures are high-pressure furnaces. Boeing used a novel automated fiber placement technique to manufacture the tank in Tukwila, Washington.

Marshall is leading the Composite Cryotank Technologies and Demonstration project with support from NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland; NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va.; and NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida through funding provided by the NASA Space Technology’s Game Changing Development program.

In the coming months, the tank will undergo a series of hydrogen pressure tests in Marshall’s test facility where engineers will measure its ability to contain liquid hydrogen at extremely cold, or cryogenic, temperatures. NASA and Boeing engineers will use the test results to refine the tank design and build a larger 5.5-meter composite tank scheduled for testing in early 2014.

The design features and manufacturing processes can be applied to propellant tanks similar in size to tanks needed for heavy-lift rockets. Large propellant tanks for the space shuttle and other vehicles have typically been made of aluminum.

  • Nadir

    I wonder if it is polyimide matrix

  • jb

    This have any tie in to the X-33? ( Have they tried to continue development of the tank through this program?

  • Brian Koester

    Very Cool news! Wouldn’t this make the X-33 Single Stage to orbit viable now? Or was it the “VentureStar”). Is the likely end user of this tech NASA’S planned
    Heavy Lift vehicle? How will SpaceX & Elon Musk react or do they have their own
    “Black” program with the same tech for their BFR….

  • Bohdan

    SpaceX about composite structures (2010)

    “There are no immediate plans to convert first- or second-stage tanks to composites, says Thompson. “Because we’re dealing with a cryogenic tank in the first stage, it becomes more complicated to move to composites,” he explains, adding that “it takes us less than three weeks to build the first-stage tank in aluminum. Without a multimillion dollar tape laying machine and other automated equipment, it would be nearly impossible to do this in composites efficiently and economically.”

  • Linsey Young

    Any idea how much mass is saved over a comparable aluminum tank?

  • jj

    SpaceX reminds me of Apple in the way, other than the reusability thing, they more optimize what’s out there than make new things. If these studies end positively and composites become viable, they’ll move on to it. In-fact they have more incentive to do so because they plan on reusing in the future instead of having to make new tanks every 3 weeks. I’m not saying it’s a bad thing for them but it spells out why NASA and SpaceX are two different entities and how they compliment eachother