Research News

UB awarded $8.5 million to improve ‘hybrid’ space rockets

View of a rocket from the bottom looking upwards.


Published October 20, 2020

Paul DesJardin.
“This award puts UB students at the forefront of scholarly activity in an incredibly exciting field that’s of great interest to NASA and other federal agencies, as well as private aerospace companies like SpaceX. ”
Paul DesJardin, professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering and director
Center for Hybrid Rocket Exascale Simulation Technology

A UB research team has been awarded $8.5 million to study hybrid rockets, a technology that could provide a safer and less expensive way to explore outer space compared to conventional rockets.

The grant, which comes from the U.S. Department of Energy, enables UB to establish the Center for Hybrid Rocket Exascale Simulation Technology (CHREST).

The funds will provide UB with the resources to explore how hybrid rockets — a nearly 100-year-old concept that’s getting a fresh look thanks to advancements in computing power and artificial intelligence — can be used to launch satellites into space using common fuels like candle wax and kerosene.

“This award builds upon the long and impressive history of aerospace innovation at the University at Buffalo and Western New York,” says Kemper Lewis, dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. “Advancing this technology will not only help maintain the nation’s position as a leader in space, it also will help cement the reputation of UB and the greater Buffalo area as a hub of creative activity where society’s most pressing challenges are solved.”

Rep. Brian Higgins says this significant federal investment in UB-driven research “will help to inform space exploration programs led by the energy department, NASA and other federal agencies.”

“Furthermore, the involvement of students in this exciting project advances opportunities for the next generation of scientific and technical professionals to grow in STEM experience,” Higgins says.

Historically, there have been two types of rockets: liquid and solid.

The first rocket to carry astronauts to the moon was propelled into space mostly by liquid fuel. Solid systems are primarily used for missiles, but they have helped launch space vehicles such as NASA’s Space Shuttle. While each system is effective, they are relatively costly and dangerous. Additionally, liquid systems often rely on toxic chemicals like hydrazine, and solid systems can’t be turned on and off, limiting scientists’ ability to control them.

UB SEDS rockets stand in front of Davis Hall.

Rockets from the UB SEDS (Students for the Exploration and Development of Space) club in front of Davis Hall. Photo: Courtesy of UB SEDS

Hybrid rockets, which date back to the 1930s, fall in between these two systems. They are inherently safe and use non-toxic, inexpensive fuels. Also, they can be turned on and off, and they have a higher energy density than liquid fuels. But hybrid rockets haven’t been used widely because scientists don’t know enough about how the fuel burns in these systems and, as a result, how to optimally design them.

“Our mission is to improve our understanding of how these rocket systems work, and to help optimize their performance,” says CHREST’s director, Paul DesJardin, professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering.

UB will use the bulk of the funds to acquire extremely powerful computers, which the team will use to simulate previously developed hybrid rockets, as well as future theoretical rockets. The team also will develop machine learning — a subset of artificial intelligence — algorithms that offer insight into how to better design hybrid rockets.

Potential future uses of hybrid rockets including launching satellites, especially nanosatellites, into space from Earth. They also could be very useful in situations where high thrust is required to lift heavy payloads loads into space from planetary surfaces, such NASA’s planned Mars Ascent mission

A component of the grant involves educating UB students about hybrid technology. A portion of the funds will support a team of undergraduates who compete in the annual Spaceport America Cup, the world’s largest intercollegiate rocket engineering conference and competition

“This award puts UB students at the forefront of scholarly activity in an incredibly exciting field that’s of great interest to NASA and other federal agencies, as well as private aerospace companies like SpaceX,” says DesJardin, adding that the research team will also work with doctoral students in UB’s Computational and Data Enabled Science and Engineering program.

Another component emphasizes recruiting students from groups underrepresented in science, technology, engineering and math fields. This includes working with UB programs such as the Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation, more commonly known as LSAMP, and Buffalo-area Engineering Awareness for Minorities, also known as BEAM.

“The Center for Hybrid Rocket Exascale Simulation Technology is a wonderful opportunity for UB to support and prepare underrepresented students with hands-on research experiences in a developing field that’s critical for our nation’s future,” says Letitia Thomas, assistant dean for diversity in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, and an investigator on the grant.

The grant comes after UB received $50,000 from SUNY’s Research Seed Grant Program, which provides early-stage funding to catalyze and support SUNY faculty in pursuit of large grants in strategic priority areas to establish interdisciplinary, multi-institutional, research centers at SUNY campuses.

In addition to DesJardin and Thomas, UB investigators for CHREST include Varun Chandola and Matthew Knepley, both associate professors in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering; James Chen, associate professor in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering; Mark Swihart, UB Distinguished Professor and chair of the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering; Matthew Jones, interim director and lead computational scientist at UB’s Center for Computational Research. Abani Patra, Stern Family Professor of Computer Science at Tufts University, is also an investigator.

The team will work with an advisory board of scientists from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Sandia National Laboratories and the Los Alamos National Laboratory.

The award was one of nine new Predictive Science Academic Alliance Program III Centers selected by the energy department’s National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) to support science-based modeling and simulation and exascale computing technologies. These nine centers are be funded by NNSA’s Advanced Simulation and Computing (ASC) program, which engages the U.S. academic community in advancing science-based modeling and simulation technologies.