Brandon Terry, PhD, the co-founder and chief technology officer of Adranos, and the Chris Stoker, the co-founder and CEO of the Purdue University startup, discusses winning the $200,000 grand prize in the US Army’s xTechSearch technology competition and how their ALITEC solid rocket fuel could increase the missiles and projectiles by 40 percent with Defense & Aerospace Report Editor Vago Muradian. The interview was conducted at the Association of the United States Army’s 2019 Global Force Symposium and Exhibition in Huntsville, Ala., where our coverage was sponsored by L3 Technologies and Leonardo DRS.
Vago Muradian: Welcome to the Defense and Aerospace Report. I’m Vago Muradian here in Huntsville, Alabama at the Association of the United States Army’s annual Global Force Symposium here in Huntsville, the number one winter gathering of U.S. Army leaders from around the world as well as industry, thought leaders, and media. Our coverage here is sponsored by L3 Technologies and Leonardo DRS, and it’s our absolute pleasure to have the very first xTechSearch winners, the first grand prize winners from Adranos which is a very, very cool company. Chris Stoker is the CEO of the company which was founded in 2015 and consists of exactly two of you. And Brandon Terry, PhD, rocket scientist, Boilermaker from the illustrious Purdue University, one of the nation’s greatest engineering schools. I’m sorry, it’s just really, really cool always meeting a rocket scientist in Huntsville, Alabama. That’s all I’ve got to say.
You guys won the $200,000 prize. Jeff White, the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Army for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics just awarded you this and it was 300 companies necked down eventually to pick you guys as the grand prize winners.
So Chris, tell us a little bit about the company. How you guys were formed, what you guys do, and how did you pick this astronomically cool name for the company?
Chris Stoker: What the company does is, we’re developing high performance rocket motors for missiles and other firing systems to extend their range so that we can be more effective on the battlefield. It originally started at Purdue University with Dr. Terry where he was sort of trying to find a solution to another problem and he sort of stumbled upon this one and found wow, this is a rocket motor propellant that can dramatically increase the range of a lot of firing systems. Why has no one done this?
From there, we’ve kind of grown, we’ve been able to raise some money, and this has been huge for us to help put us on the map so we can make more progress.
Mr. Muradian: Adranos, a very cool name. Tell us about the source.
Mr. Stoker: We wanted to do something sort of under the Greek God umbrella, which is common to the rocket world. No one had chosen Adranos. So we looked up Adranos, and he’s the Greek God of Fire who lives in a volcano. We’re an energetics company launching rockets. So it fit perfectly. The name of our first rocket was the Etna Rocket, which is the volcano that Adranos lives in. So pretty exciting.
Mr. Muradian: That is absolutely fantastic. Obviously Greeks getting to Sicily where Mount Etna is.
Brandon tell us a little bit about, so like every great innovation, you were trying to solve another problem and then you end up with something that’s a groundbreaking discovery. Talk to us a little bit about the problem you were trying to solve, but also foundationally what makes your new propellant and approach better than what we’ve been using basically since the 1940s and ‘50s.
Brandon Terry: I was working on another rocket propellant where we were doing a different fuel additive for cell propellants and looking at how that works. And as I was looking at how that propellant works it gave me some ideas to try a bunch of other fuel additives that could potentially have some great impact.
In the great age of today where we can run, you know, thousands of simulations very quickly, I started just running lots of simulations and this outlier came out that looked really great. So I ran more and more simulations, and after I’d run thousands of them I finally went to my PhD advisor and said look at this, and we both said why has nobody done this? And so we did a lot of testing and found that not only is the math correct in the simulations, but there’s a lot of great added benefits. And the reason why this works so much better is we were effectively getting more energy per piece of propellant, per mass of propellant.
One of the great benefits of that is traditional solid propellant has harmful chemicals in it. Hydrochloric acid. And effectively how we get our better performance is we’re getting rid of the hydrochloric acid and letting us use all that hydrogen that was going into a toxic acid previously, now can get used for the benefit of propulsion.
Mr. Muradian: And any time you have more hydrogen, you get better propulsion.
Dr. Terry: Exactly.
Mr. Muradian: Is it calcium perchloric based or not? The propellant.
Dr. Terry: It’s ammonium perchloric based with metal fuel.
Mr. Muradian: Which you’re not going to share with me.
Dr. Terry: Not right now.
Mr. Muradian: That’s perfectly fine.
Chris, talk to us a little bit — that’s very very cool, by the way. And I wanted to get into specific impulse and stuff like that, but we can talk about that in a minute.
Tell us a little bit about what’s next. This is a really great infusion of cash, $200,000 that goes to the company. You guys have been successful in getting to where you are in part because of investment but also winning competitions. So what’s the next phase? What does this award enable you to do as you guys continue to try to become the next giant of the future?
Mr. Stoker: Building on the previous xTech award, the $120,000 award from the last round, we used that to do our first live launch, our flight demonstration to prove that it flies. So now what we need to do is prove that it can be stored for long periods of time, prove that we can scale it to bigger and bigger rockets. So we’re really effectively going to go big.
Mr. Muradian: That’s really cool.
So talk about big and scalability and the order of magnitude power that you are producing that other guys aren’t.
Dr. Terry: Effectively what we’re doing is, like I said earlier, we’re getting more pressure, more thrust per unit mass of propellant, and the great thing we’ve also found is because of the way we burn, we actually get higher efficiency at the smaller scale. So we’re able to not only work with really big motors, but we can actually work very effectively with small motors which traditional propellants have a hard time doing. And then as we get to bigger motors we still have our base, based on the chemistry how much more performance we get, and effectively this allows us to use this propellant in the smaller rocket motors, from rockets and projectiles all the way up to our nuclear arsenals. It can be used in all of those systems.
Mr. Muradian: That’s extraordinary.
So what is your growth plan? Where do you guys want to be in another ten years? And what are some potential adjacencies in other markets? When you look at, something always applies and opens up another door, right? And you guys can’t just be looking at it, although this is a really, really good idea in order to be able to capitalize on it. But where do you want to be in a couple of years? What’s the next sort of technological breakthrough that you guys are looking at?
Mr. Stoker: Let’s start with adjacency. We think there could be a big impact on the small sat space launch world. A lot of the smaller rockets being developed are liquid based. A lot of them also need to potentially scale their size, and solid could be good for that, and we think we can provide a cost-effective solution that can help them expand their payload.
Where we want to be is, we want to grow our technology. We want it to get acquired by the Department of Defense and used in actual systems so that we can increase our effectiveness on the battlefield. Whether we do that through manufacturing. Whether we do that partnering with a large player that has the capability of manufacturing already, we’re open to that. We’re open to whatever way is going to help us get in the game as fast as we can so we can get this capability to our soldiers.
Mr. Muradian: And in terms of future developments, through tinkering and trying to figure out how to improve this, so what’s going to be some of the next technological challenges you want to surmount as you try to get your image in bronze put next to Wernher von Braun’s down here somewhere.
Dr. Terry: At this point our next technological thing that we’re working on is still on the same propellant we’re working on now. We can optimize the formulation for specific platforms, whether you want high density or just really high performance. There’s different, different platforms want different things. So we’re going to be optimizing the formulation and as my partner Chris said, once you optimize a particular type of platform, then it’s putting it into those platforms. There’s a lot of work that has to go into that, so that’s our primary focus moving forward.
Mr. Muradian: And obviously from a strategic standpoint, this is great because it’s another source for solid propellant which has always been kind of the challenge about how the United States does that from a strategic perspective. So you’ve got to answer for me, what is it that motivated you to become a real rocket scientist? Not somebody who’s a BS rocket scientist, like an actual, genuine, real rocket scientist?
Dr. Terry: It actually all came down to when I was 12 years old, in fact I’m wearing an Eagle Scout pin right here, and I did the Space Exploration Merit Badge, and we launched a little rocket, about that big.
Mr. Muradian: An Estes rocket?
Dr. Terry: A little Estes rocket, yeah. A little C65 on a homemade rocket that I built. And I absolutely loved it. And my dad, who is an engineer, and he goes oh great, something nerdy I can do with my son. So I started building bigger and bigger rockets, and by the time I had graduated high school we had launched rockets that were in excess of 10 feet tall. And —
Mr. Muradian: What motors were you using?
Dr. Terry: Upwards of J and above.
Mr. Muradian: Wow.
Dr. Terry: And I determined by the time I graduated high school, I really liked that business end, that rocket motor. I only built the rockets so that I could put the rocket motor in something. So I went to school to do just that.
Mr. Muradian: Fantastic.
Guys, thanks very much. Brandon Terry, PhD, Boilermaker who has found a revolutionary answer that changes solid fuel. And Chris Stoker, the CEO of the company, Adranos. Great name, guys. A real honor to meet you, and I wish you all the very best and look forward to A, seeing your bust on the Rocket Hall of Fame one of these days; and one of these days you guys being right up at that first tier where it’s like Boeing, Adranos, you know, and all of these companies that think they’re big now who are going to be small compared to you guys in the future. Thanks very, very much.
Mr. Stoker: Thank you so much.
Dr. Terry: Thank you.