New Purdue propulsion facilities to expand jet-engine research

Purdue University is expanding the nation’s largest university propulsion laboratory for research aimed at reducing fuel consumption and emissions for next-generation jet engines.

The expansion at the Maurice J. Zucrow Laboratories will include new test cells to support laser-based measurements in a building to be constructed adjacent to Zucrow’s high-pressure lab. Developed in 1964 as part of NASA’s Apollo program, the high-pressure lab houses research sponsored by aerospace companies, NASA, the U.S. Air Force and other agencies.

“We are doing great things in jet engine research,” said Leah Jamieson, Purdue’s John A. Edwardson Dean of Engineering. “This expansion will boost Zucrow’s research collaborations with leading firms and provide additional educational opportunities to prepare our students for jobs in industry, academia and the public sector.”

The new one-floor, 9,600-square-foot facility will cost $8.2 million. Construction is expected to begin in 2016 and take about a year to complete. Much of the cost – $5 million – is coming from the Lilly Endowment Inc. as part of a $40 million grant, the largest cash donation in Purdue’s history.

The project will include renovations to the current high-pressure lab, including additional office space for growing numbers of faculty and students.

Zucrow is jointly operated by the university’s School of Mechanical Engineering and the School of Aeronautics and Astronautics.

“One of the reasons Zucrow is a top research venue is because we have an internationally unique infrastructure to do this kind of work,” said Stephen D. Heister, Zucrow director and the Raisbeck Engineering Distinguished Professor for Engineering and Technology Integration. “However, the lack of space has been a problem, and the new high-pressure lab is a huge step forward.”

Zucrow is a complex of six facilities founded in 1946 on a 24-acre site west of campus. Over its nearly 70-year history, it has produced more than 1,000 graduates, including several who later became NASA astronauts. The labs specialize in rockets and gas-turbine engines, with faculty and students performing a wide range of propulsion-related research. More than 90 graduate students are working in the labs, which have annual research expenditures exceeding $9 million.

“What makes us different than other university facilities is our ability to precisely study actual conditions inside combustors,” said Scott Meyer, Zucrow’s managing director. “Our test rigs rival what companies have, and we take it a step further by being able to apply laser-based measurement techniques.”

The existing high-pressure lab includes two test cells, and each cell contains two test beds, meaning four separate experiments can be configured at the same time. One of the cells is for rocket testing. The other is for combustion research in turbine engines.

However, companies are reluctant to share a test cell with competitors for fear of compromising propriety secrets, representing an obstacle in attracting research funding, Meyer said. The new building will house five test cells and allow companies to have their own research space.

Another weakness has been the current laser lab, which is housed in a cramped space. The new building will have a 2,000-square-foot laser lab to study combustion in jet engines, allowing Purdue to expand its laser-based research. The studies are enabling engineers for the first time to see what happens inside a jet engine’s combustor, providing data to construct models to better simulate performance and improve designs.

“We use lasers to measure the properties of the flow inside the combustor such as temperature, chemical species, flow velocity and heat release,” said Carson Slabaugh, a research scientist who completed his doctoral thesis at Zucrow.

Another key upgrade is a new air heater, installed in January. The new system will heat air to as high as 1,500 degrees Fahrenheit at a pressure of up to 850 pounds per square inch. The new heater is critical to developing better jet engines because it will allow experiments to operate under higher temperatures and pressures than currently possible.

“Our current air heater was installed in 1968, and it has very poor efficiency,” Meyer said.

Purdue has added two faculty members who will use the facilities: Guillermo Paniagua, an associate professor of mechanical engineering who joined the faculty last year, and Terrance Meyer, a professor of mechanical engineering who will arrive in June.

Industry collaborators have included Rolls-Royce, GE and Siemens.

Propulsion research at Zucrow is led by Heister; Robert Lucht, the Ralph and Bettye Bailey Professor of Combustion in Mechanical Engineering; William Anderson, a professor of aeronautics and astronautics; Nicole Key, an associate professor of mechanical engineering, and aeronautics and astronautics; Steven Son, a professor or mechanical engineering, and aeronautics and astronautics; and Timothée Pourpoint, associate professor of aeronautics and astronautics.

“This new laboratory will improve everybody’s capabilities,” Heister said.