During Phase II, USNC-Tech will procure, assemble, calibrate, and demonstrate a system capable of the mechanical evaluation of NTP materials in ultrahigh-temperature vacuum and prototypical atmospheric conditions. This effort will produce the first in-situ mechanical testing system that simultaneously combines ultrahigh-temperature testing, hydrogen, and material property data collection. To be constructed at USNC-Tech’s advanced ceramics and materials facility in Salt Lake City, UT, this testing system will be capable of materials evaluation under vacuum, hydrogen, nitrogen, and argon atmospheres at temperatures up to 2,700°C (2,972K), featuring both contact and non-contact measurement methods for test data collection.
Modern NTP systems must endure extremely high temperatures (2,500-3,000K) to maximize specific impulse and minimize mass. To reach higher temperatures, miniaturize reactor form factors, and maintain high power densities – all without sacrificing safety – designers and manufacturers of such systems must be able to complete rigorous ground testing campaigns at operational temperatures with similar environmental conditions. Existing experimental data does not adequately capture the dynamic characteristics of the extreme environments within advanced reactors. Breakthroughs in refractory and ceramic materials have enabled engineers to consider the use of high-performance fuel, moderator, and structural materials that were historically unavailable for use in heritage NTP systems. For relevant materials developed after earlier testing campaigns, no experimental data exists. The successful construction of the proposed testing and evaluation infrastructure will enable performance verification of these materials in a prototypical environment. Without the proposed testing infrastructure, a variety of novel, high-performance materials will not reach the TRLs required for reliable infusion into target NTP-enabled missions.
Ultrahigh-temperature testing of NTP materials in a prototypical environment is critical to the safe development of the NTP engines NASA will use to transport astronauts to Mars. This facility will increase the national capacity for static hot hydrogen testing by 50% and will be the only facility designed with a materials characterization frame that features contact and non-contact strain measurement capabilities. NASA will be able to study how hydrogen embrittlement affects materials at-temperature as well as the elastic modulus of ceramics.
This testing facility is critical to USNC-Tech’s product development and overarching commercialization plans, specifically the maturation of the fuels, moderators, and other materials within modern NTP systems. It will also support the high-temperature mechanical property testing needs of USNC’s development of the Micro Modular Reactor and its proprietary Fully Ceramic Microencapsulated fuel.