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Industrial Constructors/Managers, Inc. facilitates improvements to aerospace test facility thanks to ‘on the go’ construction and welding

By Clint Thurston

While contractors are often part of the innovation process as they help project owners improve their workflows, update their equipment, or construct entirely new facilities, they aren’t typically supporting the build out of test facilities intended to develop revolutionary technology that one day will push the boundaries of hypersonic flight. 

But that’s exactly what Colorado-based contractor, Industrial Constructors/Managers, Inc. (ICM), was hired to do in the summer of 2019 for Reaction Engines, a privately-held technology company that’s developing thermal management systems and novel propulsion solutions for the defense and commercial high-speed flight sector, as well as for aviation, automotive, and energy sectors in the US and UK.

ICM, which specializes in industrial construction, was hired to install additional ground support equipment at Reaction Engines’ new testing facility located in Watkins, Colorado. The equipment was required to enable expanded testing of Reaction’s high-tech precooler technology, a microtube heat exchanger which delivers world-leading heat transfer capabilities at low weight and compact size. This technology enhances the performance, efficiency, and sustainability of existing and future jet engine technology, along with applications in automotive, aerospace, energy, and industrial processes. 

Testing For Success

Reaction’s precooler technology is unique because it quenches the large volume of engine inlet air down from 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit to ambient temperatures in less than a 20th of a second – a world first – using a microtube heat exchanger, which consists of thousands of thin-walled tubes. With cool air available to the engine, much higher speeds can be unlocked while continuing to use tried and true engine materials that are available today.

When first testing the precooler technology, Reaction Engines used gaseous helium as the coolant fluid, achieving validation of the precooler technology at Mach 5 inlet temperatures, which is approximately 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit. Further testing began in 2022, exploring and expanding the available precooler operating envelope that could be utilized to achieve high-speed flight, while concurrently capturing performance of the precooler using a liquid coolant.  

As a result of the 2022 test campaign, the Reaction Engines team achieved 10 megawatts of heat transfer, an amount three times higher than the heat transferred in the 2019 tests. While this was great news, it also proved that Reaction’s test facility needed the addition of a new liquid coolant system to handle the huge thermal load. Reaction Engines called on ICM to handle construction, assembly, welding, and inspection of the new system, which was designed by the Reaction Engines team. 

Building The New Liquid Coolant System

ICM’s installation of the new liquid coolant system included major hardware build and placement and the installation of interconnecting high pressure/high temperature piping constructed of heavy wall stainless and exotic materials. ICM then supported the proof pressure test of the new build, followed by the precision cleaning of the new installation to ensure that no foreign object debris would adversely impact the tests. 

To complete the project, ICM successfully supported the commissioning phase for the new installation, ensuring that all hardware would provide the required performance during precooler testing. 

“We had an initial blueprint of what would be required for the project, but given the uniqueness  of the technology, the R&D nature of the project, and the real-time availability of equipment and materials in the post-COVID environment, workflow flexibility was essential,” said Jamie Hodges, executive vice president of ICM. “The project required a lot of flexibility, collaboration and teamwork on the fly. Fortunately, ICM ‘loves a challenge,’ and this project definitely lived up to that motto.” 

ICM completed construction of the new liquid coolant system in May 2022. Four pipefitters were regularly on site, with seven pipefitters used during the peak of construction. 

The way of the future

“Rocket science” technology development projects like this are critical since they can lead to vastly improved speeds and fuel efficiency for new jet engines supporting commercial, military and space flights – a feat that could positively impact millions of people. 

As a result of installing the new liquid coolant system, Reaction Engines has been able to expand the operational envelope of its heat exchanger technology, further validating its unique offering to the aerospace industry and beyond. 

Clint Thurston is a Project Manager at Industrial Contractors/Managers, Inc (ICM), a Colorado-based industrial contractor specializing in steel and concrete structures, heavy moving and rigging, machinery installation, modification and maintenance, and more.