6 mins read 08 Jul 2021

UNSW partners with Lockheed and Omni Tanks to develop composite fuel tanks

Omni Tanker is collaborating with the University of New South Wales Sydney and Lockheed Martin Australia in a partnership that will look to commercialise a world’s first composite tank technology.

The liquid hydrogen fuel tank of the Shuttle. Traditionally Liquid Hydrogen fuel tanks are made of metal, which is very heavy and in the case of the Shuttle was the heaviest individual part of the Shuttle system. This partnership is looking at ways to reduce the weight of Liquid Hydrogen tanks. Credit: NASA

Western Sydney-based manufacturing company, Omni Tanker, develop specialised composite tanks for the transport and storage of dangerous and difficult liquids and have worked with UNSW Sydney and Lockheed Martin Australia (LMA) to reduce production and maintenance costs of these tanks in the past. Now, the company is working with both organisations to develop composite fuel tanks that will be potentially used in space applications, like rockets.  

This latest collaboration will see them concentrate their development efforts on the transportation and storage of liquid hydrogen. The success of this development will support the use of liquid hydrogen in ground, sea, air and space applications. 

The project builds on a recent invention by the research team at UNSW Sydney led by Professor Chun Wang, which enables carbon fibre composites to withstand the extremely cold liquid hydrogen temperatures without matrix cracks – a challenge that has, up until now, prevented mass-market adoption of these materials for such applications.

“This new technology is the result of an outstanding collaboration and partnership between UNSW, Lockheed Martin and Omni Tanker over the past four years. It is wonderful seeing our research achievement is now moving closer towards commercial success and generating social and economic impact in Australia and beyond,” said Professor Wang.

The project is supported by the Federal Government's Advanced Manufacturing Growth Centre (AMGC) which aims to support Australian manufacturing companies to be more globally competitive and has funded a number of programs to commercialisation. The co-funded project will receive around \$1.4 million to develop two new operational scale propellant tanks for storing cryogenic liquid fuels for commercial and civil satellite programs. 

“Creating a lightweight vessel for transporting liquid hydrogen at minus 253 degrees Celsius is no simple thing – whether you’re moving it along a highway or to outer space – but it’s Australian know-how that is making it possible,” said Dr Jens Goennemann, Managing Director, AMGC.

The two tanks will utilise two different systems,  the “Type IV” fluoropolymer-lined carbon fibre composite tank and a “Type V” linerless carbon fibre composite tank, both of which are suitable for high pressures, the extreme cryogenic temperatures required for liquid hydrogen as well as oxygen, hydrogen peroxide and hydrazine (fuels that are usually used in rockets).

The grant is one of six allocated in this round, that address the six national manufacturing priority areas, which includes space, and totalled \$43.7 million in support. 

Lockheed Martin Australia Partnership

The Linerless liquid hydrogen tank integrating nano-engineering technology developed by UNSW in partnership with Lockheed Martin and Omni Tanker. Credit: Supplied

LMA is one of Australia’s leading defence and space technology companies and is part of US-based Lockheed Martin. The company specialises in integrating complex technology systems from aircraft to satellites. Christopher Hess, Head of Industrial Development, LMA acknowledged the support of AMGC and welcomed the opportunity for ongoing collaboration with UNSW and Omni Tanker. 

“Lockheed Martin invests millions of dollars every year into R&D programs with our Australian industry and research partners to solve real challenges facing our Global Supply Chains,” he said. 

“We have had a long-standing research collaboration with UNSW and Omni Tanker, and we are grateful for the support of the AMGC as we now look to commercialise these cutting edge, Australian-developed composite tank technologies for a number of Lockheed Martin and NASA applications.” 

“We are excited to work with Lockheed Martin and UNSW on this ground-breaking project, which leverages our patented technology. It is also a credit to the talented Australian engineering team that we have assembled at Omni Tanker,” said Omni Tanker’s Chief Technical Officer, Dr Luke Djukic.”

Tanks in Space

The liquid hydrogen tank and liquid oxygen tank for the Space Shuttle external tank (ET) being assembled in the weld assembly area of the Michoud Assembly Facility (MAF). The ET provided liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen to the Shuttle's three main engines during the first eight 8.5 minutes of flight. The ET was the heaviest element of the Space Shuttle System and NASA worked to reduce the weight over the years, where for every 0.45kg reduction they could increase the payload of the Shuttle by the same. Credit: NASA.

Carbon-reinforced resin matrix composite materials (CFRC) are commonly used within the aerospace industry to save weight without reducing structural integrity. Within space vehicles, the fuel and the tank contribute significantly to the overall mass of the vehicle.  

The use of CFRC would have the potential to radically reduce the overall weight of the vehicle, allowing for either lighter spacecraft or more weight for instruments. With the cost per kg for launch to LEO being anywhere from \$1500 (USD) to upwards of \$10,000 (USD), every kilogram saved could be a huge cost saving for the overall project. 

“This next phase in our collaboration with Lockheed Martin and UNSW is a landmark development that sees Omni Tanker’s seamless thermoplastic lining technology enter the aerospace sector,” said Omni Tanker’s CEO, Daniel Rodgers. 

“The OmniBIND™ technology has made inroads to revolutionising the safe and efficient movement of challenging liquids within the chemical transport sector. Now the growing need to decarbonise the energy industry, and the re-usable low-earth-orbit satellite market, have the potential to drive major utilisation for these new technologies.”

Although liquid hydrogen is common within the space industry, the need for tanks that can support the super-cold liquid means that these tanks have traditionally been made from a variety of metals. Concerns around the structural integrity of CFRC’s at cryogenic temperatures have led to fears around leaks and microcracking of the laminated structure that have delayed its use in this area. 

David Ball, Regional Director Australia and New Zealand, Lockheed Martin Space, confirmed the development of composite tanks that are lightweight, cost-effective, and resistant to microcracking and permeation represents a unique and innovative technological solution with significant space applications.

“As the world increasingly looks to hydrogen for emission-free energy, containing and transporting it in a safe, cost-effective and economic manner remains extremely challenging,”  said Ball.

“The space industry is particularly interested in the development of linerless composite tanks for their weight efficiency and durability, which represent the cutting edge of composite pressure vessel manufacturing.”

“These advances have the potential to support the growth of Australia’s sovereign space capabilities, strengthen exports to space-faring allies and partner nations, and make an important technological contribution to future space missions particularly in on-orbit storage, launch and deep space exploration,” he concluded.