Beyond supersonic is hypersonic. And producing vehicles that can not only fly but do so robustly at that speed—4,000 miles per hour and faster—is the next and most critical challenge facing our warfighters, and therefore the U.S. industrial base.
A key challenge in producing those hypersonics vehicles is developing the materials that will enable maximum performance in the incredibly hot and unforgiving environments of Mach 5 and beyond. One can imagine the challenges hypersonics materials encounter moving fast enough to make it from St. Louis to Honolulu in under an hour. As such, it is critically important to identify, then model and simulate, new and better materials and manufacturing processes—new ways of making things and how to model them predictively in the harsh environments that they will experience during their use—in turn accelerating the translation of ideas and research to the factory floor, into commercialization and into the hands of our defenders.
LIFT, the Department of Defense national manufacturing institute, is actively cultivating a national hypersonics-focused ecosystem from its Detroit-based applied research and development headquarters. This effort is focused on the intersection of materials science, manufacturing process and systems engineering. It is being coordinated at the intersection of industry, academic and government partners in developing hypersonics-centric technical programs to tackle specific challenges hindering U.S. manufacturers.
Over the last year, LIFT, with the Department of Defense (DoD) and the DoD Manufacturing Technology Program and overseen by the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering, launched and kicked off several “Hypersonics Challenge” projects. The challenge, for the U.S. manufacturing sector and academia, took aim at finding new and innovative solutions to specific challenges spelled out by the DoD. Among those who have answered the call and are hard at work:
- ATC Materials, Inc.: To demonstrate the repeatable and reliable production of their Reduced-density injection moldable pressureless-sintered silicon nitride (RIPS) molded radio frequency (RF) material.
- Boeing: To focus on powder metallurgy refractory metal matrix composites and in-situ monitoring development of hypersonic systems
- Lockheed Martin: To improve cost competitiveness and quality of high-temperature capable hypersonics components.
- Raytheon: To speed the development of advanced materials for hypersonic systems modeling and simulation.
As a technology accelerator (as opposed to an incubator), LIFT has led an effort to convene partners from across the nation to move the needle in other hypersonics materials development issues as well.
Supported by Michigan Sens. Gary Peters and Debbie Stabenow and Rep. Haley Stevens, the programs have been developed to aid in faster design and deployment of materials for hypersonic vehicles, including lower cost of development, improved vehicle performance and maturation of the domestic supply base.
Beginning with pre-existing, off-the-shelf materials sourced from U.S.-based suppliers that have existing thermal histories, work is being conducted to confirm that the virtual models are accurate and, secondarily, what changes, if any, need to be made to those materials so they perform better in hypersonics environments. If changes need to be made to those alloys, the consortium is working to produce those custom alloys so they can be additively manufactured with confidence and with predictable material properties.
Additionally, other materials, such as ceramics and ceramic-matrix composites (CMCs) are being investigated. There are fewer tools to model ceramics and CMCs than there are for the metals, so we’re seeking to discover what tools exist that can be used as models to simulate and accelerate the use of those non-metallic materials.
End Goals/Looking Ahead
This nationwide effort aims to manufacture materials and components with confidence and with predictable material properties. With the ICME tools in place, the modeling and simulation of the materials will lead to components being “born certified" – meeting the requirements desired as they are manufactured – whether they are on the leading edge of a hypersonic vehicle or on a piece of armor of a warfighting platform.
We have much more important work to do in advanced manufacturing and continuing to move hypersonics forward, and it will take the investment, commitment and expertise from government, industry and academia to drive these technologies into the future. Doing so is vital for the safety and security of this nation.
Nigel Francis is chief executive officer, LIFT. Operated by the American Lightweight Materials Manufacturing Innovation Institute, LIFT is the Detroit-based, public-private partnership between the Department of Defense, industry and academia, committed to the development and deployment of advanced manufacturing technologies and implementing talent development initiatives to better prepare the workforce today and in the future. LIFT is funded in part by the Department of Defense with management through the Office of Naval Research..