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AFRL Signs Patent Licensing Agreement With Nevada Small Business for Green Monopropellant Technology

A recently signed Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) patent licensing agreement will enable the commercialization of a green alternative to hydrazine for spacecraft propulsion. 

The AFRL Aerospace Systems Directorate has signed a Patent License Agreement (PLA) with Digital Solid State Propulsion, Inc., a small business located in Reno, Nevada. Under the agreement, the company will produce and sell the Air Force-developed monopropellant, AF-M315E. The PLA was coupled with a Cooperative Research and Development Agreement that allows AFRL scientists to collaborate with the company by providing technical knowledge and advice.

“This is a huge step for AF-M315E transition and also a segue into commercialization of future energetic ionic liquids,” said Dr. Shawn Phillips, chief of AFRL’s Rocket Propulsion Division.

Historically, hydrazine is used for space propulsion. However, it is a carcinogenic chemical that is considered toxic and requires strict production and handling protocols. In contrast, AF-M315E incorporates hydroxyl ammonium nitrate (HAN), an energetic ionic liquid, as its principal component. The new propellant, which is considered “green,” lacks vapor toxicity and does not require strict handling procedures, which leads to significant savings in processing and handling costs.

That’s not where the improvements end, however. The propellant also enhances performance. According to Adam Brand, one of the AFRL co-inventors of AF-M315E, the propellant delivers a 50-percent performance improvement over hydrazine, and it is denser and requires less fuel per mission. The improvements enable either smaller, higher-performing spacecraft or assets with longer life in space. 

“Commercializing AF-M315E gives both the commercial and military space communities the confidence that there is a long-term source for the propellant,” Brand said. “With this agreement in place, AFRL can concentrate on the discovery and early development of new propellants.”

Digital Solid State Propulsion was a good fit as a commercialization partner because of the company’s vast experience producing electric propellants using HAN oxidizer. The company has already put a HAN-based propellant into space on the Naval Research Laboratory’s Special Purpose Inexpensive Satellite.

“Our business already revolves around HAN-based propellants, so we have the expertise in handling and dealing with compatibility concerns,” said Dr. Wayne Sawka, owner of Digital Solid State Propulsion. “We already had much of the necessary equipment for processing.”

The agreements are already showing results, namely in sales and business growth for the company.

“We made a few upgrades to our current facility and hired one additional full-time employee so far,” said Sawka. “Depending on demand, we could hire more in the coming year.”

The company has already sold propellant to NASA and scheduled an order with the Air Force. Interest from the commercial sector is not far off.

“The commercialization of technologies from the Aerospace Systems Directorate is a cornerstone of our technology transfer program,” said Kristen Schario, AFRL Aerospace Systems Directorate Team Lead for Tech Transfer. “We’re happy to see this partnership develop and grow so rapidly.”

To view the original AFRL article and to learn more about the AFRL Technology Transfer Program, visit http://bit.ly/2Cguyt0.

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