The Advanced Forming Research Centre at the University of Strathclyde has partnered with Airbus Defence and Space (Airbus DS) and TWI to bring space propellant tank production back to the UK.

This project is being funded by the European Space Agency (ESA) through a two-year collaboration with AFRC.

The entities aim to optimise the tank design by making the initial component close to the net shape, which will subsequently reduce the time and wastage of metals such as titanium.

Airbus DS previously produced the fuel tanks in the UK but it currently purchases the tanks from Germany or the US.

The project aims to restore production to the UK and share output with the country’s wider supply chain.

AFRC is one of the several organisations leveraging the expanding space sector in Scotland.

Several small satellites have been built in Glasgow and the UK’s first spaceport is set to be built in Sutherland.

AFRC project head Dr Jill Miscandlon said: “Airbus DS is at the forefront of the industry, and this collaboration sees us looking at the components needed to make the propellant tanks and advising on potential manufacturing methods.

“A tank is generally made of two hemispherical domes and a cylindrical section. The parts are forged, heat-treated and machined down to the required final thickness before they are welded together. They are very thin structures and machining them down from the original thickness results in significant material waste, in addition to the high cost of the machining.”

During the last four months, the companies have been looking at various of achieving almost net-shape manufacture while maintaining the material properties given that these tanks have to be structurally sound in the space.

Miscandlon added: “The tanks must be strong enough to store propellant, such as Hydrazine or Xenon gas, under high pressure during a mission’s lifetime, which could be more than 25 years. At the same time, for some uncontrolled re-entry LEO (low-Earth orbit) satellite platforms, upon return, they should vapourise upon meeting the upper atmosphere so not to present a risk to people and facilities on Earth.”

Welding research organisation TWI will help AFRC and Airbus DS to determine the method of producing these tanks.

Airbus DS will combine its research experience with AFRC study and decide on the approach to be taken.

This approach may be based on superplastic forming, additive manufacturing processes or metal forming, as they will enable the production of the tank parts at close to net shape.

Dr Miscandlon added: “Key to the project is making components in a shorter lead-time and wasting less expensive material, which is essential with titanium alloys costing up to $60 per kilo, depending on alloy type and manufacturing route. We are also focused on sharing the project outputs with the wider supply chain here in the UK.”

Airbus DS tank products head and research and technology (R&T) manager Renato Bellarosa said: “Propellant tanks are key strategic items that we currently must procure from Germany or the United States, and we are working to re-establish the capability to make them in the UK.”