Founded in 1948 as the “Rocket Propulsion Laboratory,” Zucrow was built to provide testing infrastructure for the budding U.S. Space and Rocket Initiative. The Lab expanded in 1952 and later in 1965 when Purdue constructed most of today’s state-of-the-art facilities. Over the years, the Lab has hosted professors, NASA, and U.S. Air Force rocket engine experiments. In the late 20th century, work was nearly abandoned at the Lab but revived due to the efforts of prominent Purdue faculty and staff members. A renovation in 2016 turned the space into what it is today: a propulsion testing facility that exceeds anything else seen in academia.
These days, the sounds and blasts from Zucrow can be heard on Purdue’s campus as students carry out a multitude of testing experiments on various projects. For example, Zucrow Labs’ High-Pressure Facility touts seven test cells capable of testing rocket engines that deliver up to 10,000 pounds of thrust, fed from a 6,000 psi capacity facility (for reference, the air in your tires usually sits at 40 psi). At Zucrow, you can find nearly every propellant from modern rockets, where liquid oxygen, kerosene, hydrogen, methane, hydrogen peroxide, and ethanol are loaded regularly into tanks, shot through valves, and burned in experiments. In addition, the Lab handles novel storable “green” propellants, and students also research different solid fuels and energetic materials. Others perform careful measurements on spinning rotors and compressors from full-size jet engines. In total, Zucrow supports over 20 faculty members, over a dozen staff members, and over 180 students.
Students are the lifeblood of the Lab; they are the engineers, technicians, and test conductors at Zucrow. You can point out nearly any piece of tubing on a test cell wall or any electrical box hanging from a thrust stand, and it was likely a student's work. Their jurisdiction can involve designing test facilities, designing test rigs, and performing experiments on hardware from industry and government sponsors such as Rolls-Royce, NASA, and SpaceX.
Speaking of NASA, Purdue University is receiving millions of dollars in grant funding from NASA for two highly prestigious Zucrow projects as part of the University Leadership Initiative (ULI). Principal Investigator Professor Timothee Pourpoint stated, “Our ULI team has a highly relevant and rich track record of teamwork with NASA, both in the aeronautics arena and the space arena.” NASA’s ULI program supports aeronautical research in aircraft propulsion, advanced air mobility, and hypersonic flight. ULI also provides university students with experience solving real-world technical challenges. For example, Purdue’s team will refine techniques and hardware that examine a hypersonic vehicle's surfaces and flow to help the aircraft maintain control during flight. Hypersonic flight boasts speeds up to Mach 5 and beyond—more than 3,500 mph at sea level.
“We have a running joke that tests always occur at night because the flames look cooler in the dark. The truth is testing combustion devices is demanding work that involves long nights at the Lab. Copper Moon Coffee keeps us going during these late-night tests and keeps Zucrow running throughout all hours of the day,” said Charlie Black and Tristan Shahin, Ph.D. Graduate Research Assistants for Zucrow Labs. “We did not get to the Moon by falling victim to the sluggish 9:00 am start or the 2:00 pm crash, and we certainly will not get back there if we do.”
“As a Purdue graduate, it’s great to give back and fuel the professors and students at Zucrow and all the amazing things they do,” said Brad Gutwein, CEO of Copper Moon Coffee. “We believe good coffee creates its own kind of gravity. Bringing people together, building relationships, and igniting ideas inspire an otherworldly ambition to Reach for the Moon.”
“Students at Zucrow are committed to advancing aerospace propulsion research to benefit the scientific community and the world,” said Scott Meyer, Managing Director for Zucrow Labs. “It is tough stuff, but that’s why the Lab is full of tough people who are as committed to their work as the day is long. When the day does get long, readily available, great-tasting, Copper Moon Coffee fuels those people, and we are truly thankful for that.”
Article content provided by:
Charlie Black & Tristan Shahin
Ph.D. Graduate Research Assistants
Maurice J. Zucrow Laboratories