Air Force demonstrates rocket engine preburner for advanced liquid rocket engines

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The Air Force Research Laboratory has successfully tested a state-of-the-art rocket engine preburner to elevate the U.S. technology base for high performance oxygen-rich staged combustion. The preburner was designed, developed, and tested under the AFRL Hydrocarbon Boost program with prime contractor Aerojet Rocketdyne, and supported by the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center. Testing was conducted at NASA facilities at the Stennis Space Center in Mississippi. (Courtesy photograph)

The Air Force Research Laboratory has successfully tested a state-of-the-art liquid rocket engine preburner to elevate the U.S. technology base for high performance oxygen-rich staged combustion.

The preburner was designed, developed, and tested under the AFRL Hydrocarbon Boost program with prime contractor Aerojet Rocketdyne, and supported by the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center at Los Angeles Air Force Base, Calif. Testing was conducted at NASA Stennis Space Center, Miss., facilities.

The HCB preburner success was a culmination of two decades of AFRL research into ORSC to advance high performance, robust, and reusable domestic rocket engine technologies. 

The preburner harnesses energy to power other engine systems, and is subject to extreme oxygen environments that conventional metals cannot survive. The HCB preburner is the highest pressure rocket combustor ever tested in the United States.

“The HCB preburner pushed the boundaries of these extreme conditions and redefined state-of-the-art for these challenging systems,” said Dr. Shawn Phillips, Chief of the Rocket Propulsion Division, which is part of AFRL’s Aerospace Systems Directorate.

AFRL used advanced technologies, such as super-nickel alloys for high-strength and burn resistance.  Leveraging lessons from the HCB sub-scale preburner test campaign was key to achieving this successful test. 

The HCB test article was highly instrumented to understand the technology trade space, rather than development of a point design for operational use. This approach allowed AFRL researchers to study fundamental technical issues hindering engine development efforts today, such as combustion stability and thermal management. 

Air Force ownership of the HCB preburner design, hardware, and test data enables this foundational knowledge base to be directly applied to new engine design tools, academic research, and transitioned across U.S. industry for future engine development efforts or block upgrades. 

AFRL’s Rocket Propulsion Division at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., has played a key role in advancing liquid rocket engine technologies for the nation, since 1952.  Nearly every liquid rocket engine developed in the United States traces its roots to these AFRL technologies and experimental demonstrations.

The Air Force Research Laboratory is the primary scientific research and development center for the United States Air Force. AFRL plays an integral role in leading the discovery, development and integration of affordable warfighting technologies for our air, space, and cyberspace force. With a workforce of more than 11,000 across nine technology areas and 40 other operations across the globe, AFRL provides a diverse portfolio of science and technology ranging from fundamental to advanced research and technology development. For more information, visit: www.afresearchlab.com.