AMRC designers win top prize at the UK Space Propulsion Innovation Awards09 April 2015
Project engineers from the Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre's Design and Prototyping Group have won a top innovation award after radically rethinking the way spacecraft valves work.
Sam Hyde and Valdis Krumins beat 14 finalists from leading space science companies, design agencies and university research centres to win the overall UK Space Propulsion Innovation Award.
Organisers, the UK Space Agency, 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.
Sam and Valdis settled on a project to create a new design for "permanent valves" - valves on a space craft 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," says Sam.
"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."
Sam and Valdis'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," says Valdis. "Using explosives to operate the valves had almost become the 'industry standard.' We won because ours was a fresh look at the problem."
Sam adds: "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."
Sam and Valdis will use the £10,000 top prize 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 Sam.
"We hope that this project is just the beginning of a much wider involvement between the AMRC and the UK space industry."