NASA engineers create special copper alloy to 3D print rocket parts

NASA researchers with the Glenn Research Center and Marshall Space Flight Center teamed up to develop GRCop-42, a copper-based high strength alloy with high conductivity. When used with a Concept Laser M2 3D printer and Power Bed Fusion AM system, the new material can be used to 3D print rocket parts that are resistant to deformation and remain strong even at high temperatures.READ: You're going to Mars, I went to NASA

The concept of 3D printing rocket parts isn't new. Experts have positioned the technology as a potential solution for enabling humans located on distant planets to produce replacement parts for existing machinery when the need arises.

This 3D printing technology would enable NASA and other space agencies to reduce the number of prefabricated parts shipped into space, freeing up capacity in cargo vessels while lowering costs and ensuring space bases aren't forced to house parts they may never need. Unlike ordinary 3D printing, however, these systems would need specialized materials suitable for rockets and other space vessels.

In 2014, NASA engineers began work on developing a material called GRCop-84, later testing components printed from it in 2016 and 2017. Building upon that work, the NASA teams moved to development of GRCop-42, a similar material that offers higher thermal conductivity than GRCop-84 without compromising its strength properties.

According to a report on the NASA Technical Reports Server, the space agency conducted tests on components made from GRCop-42 in 2018, including fuel injector face plates and combustion chamber liners. During the tests, the engineers found the GRCop-42 components "may [be] equal to or exceed their traditionally manufacturer predecessors."

NASA chose the Concept Laser M2 printer due primarily to the fact it was previously used in the GRCop-84 work and had been demonstrated as "copper friendly." In a PDF detailing the research, NASA explained, "In this study, MSFC and GRC demonstrated that GRCop-42 is a readily printable alloy that can be additively manufactured into fully dense components with consistent properties at higher throughput rates than its predecessor, GRCop-84."