NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center innovators have developed several new designs and methods of fabrication for composite and composite-overwrapped tank vessels that help significantly improve their structural integrity against impact, abrasion, harsh environments, and fire. Several embodiments of this technology portfolio also enable production of composite tanks capable of transporting liquefied natural gas or other cryogenic liquids. These innovations are applicable to important aerospace needs, including propulsion systems, as well as new and growing fields such as natural gas transportation.
NASA researchers have achieved and demonstrated technologies that increase the performance and robustness of composite tanks and pressure vessels. Their innovations have been applied to lined (metallic and non-metallic) composite overwrapped pressure vessels and to all-composite tanks and pressure vessels. The methods involve a unique combination of fibers and resin systems that results in superior resistance to impact damage and extreme environments, while remaining lightweight and cost effective.
Further enhancements help with the containment of compressed natural gas and liquefied natural gas. For example, custom-tuned materials applied to the vessels improve the ability to contain cryogenic fluids and perform well under extreme environments. The addition of insulation and protective coatings augments the long-term storage of cryogenic fluids. The composite tank technologies have demonstrated superior performance in U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) bonfire and ballistics tests.
Many currently available composite vessels are easy to damage by impact and do not perform well in high-temperature or cryogenic environments. Auto industry standards for natural gas and hydrogen containment are strict, and most current tank technologies have difficulty meeting them. In contrast, the use of NASA’s technologies allows them to surpass the minimum industry standard requirements. For example, composite vessels pressurized with liquid nitrogen and impacted with a 50-caliber, armor-piercing bullet withstood fragmentation in tests. Other vessels using NASA technologies demonstrated the same burst pressure as a non-fire-exposed vessel after undergoing an entire bonfire test.
Possible applications for this technology include pressure-fed propulsion systems, natural gas and other fuel transportation, self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) tanks for emergency responders, and storage tanks for fuels, gases, and cryogenic fluids.