A big step for space industry in region

YORKSHIRE’S nascent space industry has been given a boost after engineers at Sheffield’s Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC) won a top innovation award for radically rethinking the way spacecraft valves work.

Lift-off: The Sheffield teams new valve designs should make satellite deployments safer and does away with the need for explosives.Picture: ESA/DLR

Sam Hyde and Valdis Krumins, of the AMRC’s Design and Prototyping Group, beat 14 finalists from leading space science companies, design agencies and university research centres across the country to win the overall UK Space Propulsion Innovation Award.

The UK Space Agency, which organised the competition, set a series of challenges for entrants, spanning everything from developing systems for ‘CubeSats’ – research satellites smaller than a shoe-box – to large launch engines.

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Hyde and Krumins settled on a project to create a new design for “permanent valves” – valves on a spacecraft that operate only once during a mission, after which they remain open or closed.

“Standard valves use a pyrotechnic activator – a small explosive charge – to open or close valves permanently; it’s a relic of the 1960s,” said Mr Hyde.

“It’s very quick and it is guaranteed to work first time, every time, but, because the activator uses explosives there are dangers for people handling them.

“When the activators fire out in space there are shocks and vibrations which can break welds, allowing propellant to leak out and causing the satellite to fail.

“The explosives also produce gases and particles, which can damage a satellite or rocket.”

The pair’s award-winning design involves three key innovations. Borrowing an idea from the medical sector, they changed the valve itself from being a moving cylinder to a tapered cone, which should create a better seal.

Then, they replaced the explosives with a simple spring. The spring is compressed and secured by the third innovation, a piezo-electric trigger. When a current flows through the trigger, it releases the spring, which pushes the valve into its new, permanent position.

The trigger returns to its original position when the current is switched off and then prevents the valve from moving back.

“I think we won because we have the capability to look at things differently at the Design and Prototyping Group,” said Mr Krumins.

“Using explosives to operate the valves had almost become the ‘industry standard.’ We won because ours was a fresh look at the problem.” Mr Hyde added: “Everyone else was going down a well-trodden path. Taking things back to basics worked to our advantage.

“One of the beauties of working in the AMRC’s Design and Prototyping Group is that it brings together people from a wide range of different backgrounds who share ideas and bring a lot of experience to the table.”

The AMRC Design and Prototyping Group was created in 2012 to address a severe shortage of high-quality engineering designers. The intention was to integrate a world-class design team with the established manufacturing and research expertise of the AMRC’s established groups (see panel), to create a manufacturing design resource capability beyond anything previously available in the UK.

It is based in the new AMRC Design Prototyping and Testing Centre – a major expansion of the original AMRC facility which has been funded by ERDF and the High Value Manufacturing Catapult.

Hyde and Krumins will use their prize – a £10,000 “exploratory ideas grant” provided by the UK Space Agency – to further develop their design.

“This grant will allow us to make some early steps into an engineering sector which is of great interest, and allow us to develop this proposal into a comprehensive test rig,” said Mr Hyde.

A centre of excellence

The University of Sheffield Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC) brings together the worlds of academia and business to develop a cluster of industry-focused manufacturing R&D centres and support facilities.

It has several components:

AMRC with Boeing.

Nuclear AMRC.

AMRC Training Centre.

Castings Technology International – world-leading provider of technology, expertise and services to the cast metals sector.

AMRC National Metals Technology Centre.

AMRC Diamond Jubilee Knowledge Transfer Centre.