by Holly Jordan
Air Force Research Laboratory
1/21/2015 - WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio. -- Air
Force Research Laboratory scientist Dr. Rusty Blanski recently teamed
with Dr. Robert Grubbs, a Nobel Laureate from the California Institute
of Technology to develop a groundbreaking new technology that could
reduce erosion in metallic rocket components, reduce production costs
and open the door for the use of new, environmentally-friendly
Working under the Air Force Office of Scientific Research's Visiting
Scientist Program and a Cooperative Research and Development project
with Caltech, Blanski, an expert in the field of oxidation-resistant
materials, worked side-by-side with Grubbs, an expert in organometallic
and synthetic catalysts. Through this collaboration, the two researchers
sought to study techniques that could create a new class of olefin
metathesis catalysts and allow the development of new and more
affordable oxidation-resistant metal coatings for rocket engine
Oxidation is an issue in rocket engines and components because their
extreme operational environments, including temperatures that can reach
3500 degrees Fahrenheit, accelerate oxidation, causing premature erosion
and weakening of components. In the past, exotic metals that are
capable of surviving such extreme conditions have been used for these
components, making the parts difficult to manufacture and very costly.
Blanski developed the organometallic precursors for a process called
Supercritical Chemical Fluid Deposition, which allows the deposition of a
layer of oxidation-resistant metal, such as iridium or nickel, onto
almost any metal surface. This process allows uniform coating on even
small, intricate parts and thin slots, so that the entire surface is
protected. This process makes possible the use of less expensive,
lighter and more easily-obtainable component materials.
Through their collaborative efforts at Caltech, Blanski and Grubbs
developed new precursors and synthetic methodologies to allow the
process to be further refined to allow the deposition to occur at lower
temperatures, which increases the metal deposit yield and speeds the
This coating technology can be applied to catalyst bed-plates used to
create a protective surface for chemically-induced, in-space thrusters.
This work is important because currently there is no type of catalyst
bed that can withstand the oxidation environment necessary for the
AFRL-developed AF-M315 Green Monopropellant. Using the precursors
developed through Blanski's and Grubbs' work could enable the use of
this and other types of environmentally-friendly propellants for
Additionally, the oxidation protection enabled by this process could
also be used for other rocket components such as nozzle walls or
combustion chambers, to protect the cooling channels from
eroding. Turbine engines may also benefit from this technology.
Blanski says the collaboration was an exciting opportunity that offered benefits for both sides.
"It was a wonderful experience working in Bob's labs and interacting
with him and his highly talented research group," says Blanski. "It is
also a true win-win collaboration, where the Air Force receives
technology from Caltech and Caltech benefits with the development of a
new class of olefin metathesis catalysts."
Caltech recently filed a joint provisional patent on behalf of Blanski
and Grubbs to allow for future development and potential commercial use
of this technology.