Over a Dozen US Additive Manufacturing Proposals will Receive NASA’s SBIR and STTR Awards

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NASA is looking to develop technologies that will break boundaries in space, such as pilotless aircraft or solar panels, that could help humans live on the Moon and Mars. During the three-phase Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program, the agency has selected hundreds of proposals and many of them will use additive manufacturing.

During the first phase, the agency chose 363 submissions from small businesses and research institutions across 41 states to help advance the types of capabilities needed for future missions, as well as to support the agency in other areas as part of their SBIR and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) programs, which will award a total of 45 million dollars to support the development of technologies in the areas of human exploration and operations, space technology, science, and aeronautics in its first phase. Ten of those proposals will be using additive manufacturing in the following applications: in-space propulsion technologies; power energy and storage; sensors, detectors and instruments; entry, descent and landing systems; in-space and advanced manufacturing; ground and launch processing, and air vehicle technology. 

NASA selected the proposals based on a range of criteria, including technical merit and feasibility, as well as the firms’ experience, qualifications, and facilities. Additional criteria included the effectiveness of the proposed work plans and the commercial potential of the technologies. Only small businesses awarded a Phase I contract were eligible to submit a proposal for a Phase II funding agreement, which is focused on the development, demonstration, and delivery of the innovations previously selected. For this second stage, out of 142 proposals from 129 US small businesses out of 28 states, nine have projects related to AM technology and expect to receive Phase II contracts, in this case, the awards total 106 million dollars.

The three stages of NASA’s SBIR and STTR programs are conducted as follows:

  • Phase I is the opportunity to establish the scientific, technical, and commercial merit and feasibility of the proposed innovation. SBIR Phase I contracts last for six months and STTR Phase I contracts last for 13 months, both with a maximum funding of 125,000 dollars.
  • Phase II is focused on the development, demonstration, and delivery of the innovation, with contracts lasting for 24 months with maximum funding of 750,000 dollars.
  • Phase III is the commercialization of innovative technologies, products, and services resulting from either a Phase I or Phase II contract.

All of the proposals offer both potential NASA applications as well as non-NASA applications so that its innovative product or service can be adapted to different settings. The SBIR and STTR programs encourage small businesses and research institutions to develop innovative ideas that meet the specific research and development needs of the federal government. The programs are intended to stimulate technological innovation in the private sector, increase the commercial application of research results, and encourage the participation of socially and economically disadvantaged companies and women-owned small businesses. It is the largest and most important federal fund for financing small business research and development, and with an annual budget of 2.5 billion dollars, it finances more than 160,000 companies every year. 

Since the 1970s, small businesses have created approximately 55 percent of all jobs in the United States.

“Small businesses play an important role in our science and exploration endeavors,” said Jim Reuter, acting associate administrator of NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate. “NASA’s diverse community of partners, including small businesses across the country, helps us achieve our mission and cultivate the U.S. economy. Their innovations will help America land the first woman and the next man on the Moon in 2024, establish a sustainable presence on the lunar surface a few years later, and pursue exciting opportunities for going to Mars and beyond.”

The selected proposals will support aeronautics, human space exploration, operations, science, space technology, improve mobility on the Moon and other planetary bodies, search for life on other planets, and even enable autonomous unmanned aircraft systems. It’s all really related to NASA’s Strategic Plan for Lunar Exploration, the Artemis project, a program to return astronauts to the lunar surface by 2024, more specifically, the Moon’s South Pole. Thanks to Artemis, NASA hopes to be able to establish a sustainable human presence on the Moon by 2028 to uncover new scientific discoveries, demonstrate new technological advancements, and lay the foundation for private companies to build a lunar economy.

During Phase I, ten companies will be addressing some of these concerns with additive manufacturing. The disruptive technology has become extremely popular, convenient and cost-effective in many space-related projects. The US space agency has been working with the technology for years, sending the first 3D printer to the International Space Station in 2014 trying to focus on how self-sustainability will help astronauts living anywhere other than this planet. NASA’s Orion Spacecraft used over 100 3D printed final parts. So it’s no wonder that a lot of the companies being selected for Phase I and II will use additive manufacturing to efficiently get to the Moon and eventually Mars.

The following AM-related companies were selected for Phase I:

  1. Geoplasma Research hopes to use additive manufacturing of refractory metal alloys for nuclear thermal propulsion components, which help reduce travel time for deep space missions and circumvent the primary concern of crew exposure to hazardous deep space radiation. The Louisiana-based company will concentrate on refractory alloys dispersion strengthened by thermodynamically stable phases, with a combination of a high strength refractory metal feedstock and an AM technology that circumvents issues such as cracking from thermal stresses associated with more traditional laser or electron beam AM technology.
  2. SET Group proposes a high-density bi-directional modular power converter with additively manufactured magnetics as a solution to NASA’s interest for high power density, efficiency, modular electrical systems. The proposed design will be able to function as a bus and battery charge and discharge regulator and as a bus power converter. To design and fabricate magnetic composite electromagnetic cores that will replace traditional electromagnetic onboard components they will leverage Direct Metal Laser Sintering (DMLS) Advanced Manufacturing (AM) techniques and equipment.
  3. NHanced Semiconductors plans to design, fabricate, assemble and test a delta doped 3D Advanced Hybrid Detector (AHD) prototype device which NASA could potentially use for both the Large UV Optical Infrared (LUVOIR) Surveyor program and the Habitable Exoplanet (HabEX) program which are both intended for launch in the 2030s. As well as for other commercial uses in forensic analysis and even for identifying unreported automotive body repairs.
  4. LM Group Holdings is proposing a program to investigate manufacturing of amorphous metal alloy laminate composites and cladding of metallic surfaces by using ultrasonic additive manufacturing (UAM), a solid-state 3D metal printing technology that NASA could potentially apply to engine components or hypersonic vehicles. And could be widely adopted by industries using metal 3D printing, such as aerospace and medical.
  5. The potential for overheating either the faceplate or the body of a device injecting liquid oxygen (LOX) into a duct in which hydrogen is flowing at high temperature (2,850K) is extremely high. ASRC Federal Astronautics expects to embed a single-piece LOX injector manufactured exclusively using selective laser melting (SLM), providing the ability to infinitely tailor the transpiration cooling at significantly reduced cost and manufacturing lead time over state of the art Rigimesh (a tried and true transpiration cooling technology that has been used in the manufacture of injector faceplates used in a number of high power liquid rocket engines). This could perhaps work for planetary lander and ascent vehicle main engines, scramjets and ramjets.
  6. Additive Manufacturing Innovations, led by Ajit Achuthan, proposes a computational model to predict mechanical properties of metals and alloys with hierarchical microstructure (a new class of materials characterized by microstructure rich in features with different length scale), using a generalized method of cells. The development of metal and metallic alloys with excellent mechanical properties is extremely important for future aircraft with hybrid electric or all-electric propulsion systems, advanced materials technology is needed for power components including electric machines and power cables. The proposed innovation has the potential to make a positive impact on all important NASA missions and programs.
  7.  Advanced Ceramics Manufacturing is interested in hypersonic technology, that is innovative manufacturing for high-temperature structures (like aerospace engines) in harsh environments, using a laser-assisted additive manufacturing (AM) process to build layer by layer near net shape preform 3D structures as well as to implement laser assisted AM infiltration of Silicon Carbide (SiC) preform with molten silicon. This type of ceramic matrix composites (CMC) offers the significantly lower density and higher resistance against high-temperature oxidation than conventional materials and are widely used in aerospace and energy production industry in shrouds, combustor liners, blades, jet tabs, and vanes, blast tubes, and nozzle throats. The company has previously worked with Formula 1, Boeing and Airbus, among 800 other companies.
  8. Hoping to develop a new additive manufacturing process and post-treatment procedure for light-weight gamma Titanium Aluminide (γ-TiAl) components for hypersonic vehicles, Advanced Manufacturing expects the new procedure will address the unique fine microstructure inherent with an additively manufactured component. This new procedure will increase performance while decreasing weight and improving fuel efficiency. Lightweight AM γ-TiAl will find application soon in LPT blades for low-pressure turbines, compressor rotor, low-pressure turbine rotors, stators, and vent.
  9. The third proposal for hypersonic technology proposes enhanced thermal conductivity commercial alloys for spacecraft applications using an additive manufacturing approach. In this case, Blue Star Advanced Materials suggests a novel approach to increase the thermal conductivity of commercial structural alloys for hypersonics using AM techniques and mixed powder feeds. The idea is to maintain high-temperature strength in the alloys while increasing thermal conductivity.
  10. The ExOne Company is proposing to develop its binder jetting additive manufacturing process for silicon carbide (SiC) recuperators in support of NASA’s Electrified Aircraft Propulsion (EAP) initiatives. The established firm will demonstrate the technical feasibility of using AM to build SiC heat exchangers by optimizing print parameters and post-processing techniques to maximize the SiC volume fraction in the final material.

Precision landing in successful lunar missions (Credit: Pat Rawlings/NASA)

The Phase II companies with additive manufacturing projects selected were:

  1. Cornerstone Research Group has proposed an automated in-process quality control of recycled filament production and FDM printers for in-space manufacturing (ISM) applications. This could potentially improve the ERASMUS multi-material recycle printer system (to help astronauts by turning plastic waste into filament for 3D printing in space). The company offers NASA the opportunity to obtain AM process monitoring and control systems for online quality control of feedstock production and printed parts, reduce payload needs for AM fabrication in-space, in-situ print quality monitoring and 3D printers with improved layer-to-layer adhesion.
  2. There is a significant gap between the properties of materials that are produced using current 3D printing processes and the properties that are needed to support critical space systems. The main limitation for polymers is the interlayer adhesion between layers in the buildup direction, so Actuated Medical hopes to develop, test and commercialize additive manufacturing of PEEK and fiber-reinforced PEEK for NASA applications and custom medical devices. During Phase I, the company demonstrated the ability to retrofit a simple commercial AM printer with a high-temperature head and low-power laser diodes to enable printing of carbon fiber reinforced (CFR) PEEK, one of the strongest polymers available, along with other polymer formulations like ABS. Actuated Medical will focus on AM of high-performance thermoplastics which provide a unique opportunity to enable in situ production of large aerospace structures and temporary, on-demand tools and items capable of being recycled and reused by astronauts.
  3. In order to develop a versatile HD 3D camera that provides real-time high-resolution image and distance data over a large angle to monitor human activity from a free-flying robot platform, Boulder Nonlinear Systems is building a compact sensor.  The system can track fast-moving objects, operate from a moving platform without image blur, collect high contrast data, function without interference from other sensors operating closely and conserve power. NASA missions needing real-time 3D information, large markets 3D imaging for autonomous robotics, remote 3D scanning and gesture recognition for augmented reality systems would benefit from the proposed low-SWaP HD 3D imager.
  4. NASA’s market opportunity for free-space optical communications requires increased data volume returns from space missions, so Goodman Technologies proposes to design an ultra-lightweight, ultra-stable RoboSiC additively manufactured Gregorian laser communications telescope (LCT), which is anticipated to provide three times the reduction in cost. Robo SiC telescopes are applicable for detection of gravity waves, detection of dark, cold objects such as exoplanets and asteroids, or even missions to study the sun, as well as commercial free-space communications, complex telescopes for astronomy, imaging, surveillance, and remote sensing applications, like fire fighting, search and rescue, and atmospheric and ocean monitoring.
  5. To expand the human experience in space, NASA needs regenerable life support systems, space suits mainly. Using 3D printing, Advanced Fuel Research expects to fabricate structured (monolithic), carbon-based trace-contaminant (TC) sorbents for the space suit used in Extravehicular Activities (EVAs). The developed technology may also find applications in air-revitalization onboard US Navy submarines, in commercial and military aircraft, in the future air-conditioning systems for green buildings, and in advanced scuba-diving systems.
  6. NASA needs in-space and on-demand manufacturing of critical components, so GeoComposites is developing higher strength feedstocks for in-space manufacturing of high strength parts. During Phase I, they demonstrated the feasibility of using FDM, optimized feedstock combinations, and composite architecture to produce high strength parts, and during the second phase they will expand on for this overall technology to become a feasible candidate for ISS accommodation. FDM technology and feedstocks can be used for multifunctional composite structural radiation shields for the protection of humans and electronics during deep space missions and structural components for space transportation vehicles.
  7. During the second phase, REM Surface Engineering will continue developing technology for the post-process surface finishing of additively manufactured nickel-based superalloys (NBS), delivering an equipment solution for the outsourced processing of components for NASA and other government and private entities. NBS value is wide for NASA, due to mechanical strength, resistance to thermal creep deformation, surface stability, and corrosion/oxidation resistance.
  8. Silicon Valley-based startup Space Foundry plans to take the first steps towards printed electronics in-space manufacturing (ISM), with applications that include on-demand fabrication of energy storage devices, gas sensors, biosensors, interconnects, RF antenna. In Phase I, the company developed an integrated fluid delivery platform and custom made plasma driver for direct write, plasma jet printing technology. During Phase II, Space Foundry will be delivering a ground-based plasma jet printing equipment fully capable of printing a wide range of materials including metals, semiconductors, dielectrics, and organics using an advanced hardware and software control.
  9. Parabilis Space Technologies wants to develop a novel additively manufactured, dynamically-adjustable, in-line, cavitating flow-control and measurement venturi for use in advanced propulsion system ground testing. This design will greatly simplify propulsion testing and reduce costs for cases where desired liquid flow conditions are either not precisely understood or cover a range of high-precision flow rates providing benefit to NASA applications. The primary innovation consists of a unique floating pintle design and associated structural support with built-in pressure taps that provide both, a total pressure measurement upstream of the venturi contraction and a venturi throat pressure measurement, facilitating built-in flow rate measurement and/or determination of liquid/vapor transition.

NASA has selected 363 proposals from American small businesses and research institutions (Credits: NASA)

NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley manages the SBIR and STTR programs for NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD). STMD is responsible for developing the pioneering new technologies and capabilities needed by the agency to achieve its current and future missions. Many of the selected companies will be first-time recipients of a NASA SBIR or STTR contract. Popular companies were selected for Phase I and Phase II awards previously, like Made In Space, which, in 2014, got a $125,000 grant to set out on a project to reclaim/recycle old 3D printer ABS plastic in space under the SBIR and STTR programs. Or Fabrisonic using its hybrid metal 3D printing process, or UAM, to merge layers of metal foil together in a solid-state thanks to high-frequency ultrasonic vibrations, and also a recipient of a 2015 grant under the NASA programs. With so many challenges facing the next space frontier, the International Space Station, the astronauts and spacecrafts will need more ideas to solve some of the more complex missions into deep space. The space agency’s initiative has revolutionized hundreds of companies and professionals, turning dreams into breakthrough solutions.

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