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Stanford and Saudi scientists launch six-year collaboration on aerospace research

New fuels, flight designs, safety techniques, space missions and supporting technologies are expected from the Stanford Center of Excellence in Aeronautics and Astronautics.
Charbel Farhat, left, chair of Aeronautics and Astronautics at Stanford, and Prince Turki Saud Bin Mohammed Al Saud, a research leader in Saudi Arabia, have created the Stanford Center of Excellence in Aeronautics and Astronautics. | Photo by Rod Searcey

New green propellants. Tiny aerial vehicles that fly like birds. Faster algorithms to simulate turbulence. The most precise positioning technology known to science.

These are among the projects that will be pursued by the King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology (KACST)/Stanford Center of Excellence in Aeronautics and Astronautics, a collaborative effort involving engineers from Stanford and scientists from KACST in Saudi Arabia.

KACST is the science agency and national laboratory of Saudi Arabia. Its researchers have worked with Stanford before, but creation of the center will increase the scope of joint research during the next six years, according to Charbel Farhat, the Vivian Church Hoff Professor of Aircraft Structures and chair of the Aeronautics and Astronautics Department at Stanford Engineering.

Farhat, who will lead the Center of Excellence at Stanford, said this arrangement formalizes KACST’s previous research relationship with Stanford, and makes it more like partnerships that the Saudi science agency has signed with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in transportation and sustainability, and with Cambridge University in biotechnology and advanced manufacturing.

“Saudi Arabia is on a global push to raise its technological profile in a variety of ways, and we’re pleased to be part of their aerospace initiatives,” said Farhat, who will be personally involved in collaborative research.

The Saudi scientific team is led by Prince Turki Saud Bin Mohammed Al Saud, a member of the Saudi royal family and vice president of research institutes at KACST. A Stanford alumnus, Prince Turki earned his PhD in aeronautics here in 1997 and serves on the Stanford Engineering Advisory Council to Dean Jim Plummer.

As part of this six-year, collaborative research effort, Prince Turki will work with Brian Cantwell, the Edward C. Wells Professor at Stanford Engineering, to develop new liquid rocket fuels for satellite applications.

Liquid fuels must be hypergolic, a term that describes two fluids that ignite when mixed together. But today’s hypergolic propellants are highly toxic. Prince Turki and Cantwell will explore whether ammonia could be adapted for use as a hypergolic agent as one of several avenues of research into what they call “green propellants.”

Other Center of Excellence researchers will try to understand and improve the flight characteristics of Micro Air Vehicles, which could find all manner of uses as the technology of pilotless flight converges with new regulations allowing such uses.

This aspect of the program will involve Stanford Mechanical Engineering Professor David Lentink, who has studied winged flight in birds with an eye toward creating flapping robotic wings. Farhat will apply his expertise with simulation to understand how different flapping wing designs might respond to wind gusts and other characteristics of urban features such as skyscrapers.

One of the most ambitious and far-reaching center projects springs from the increasing reliance on such simulations. As more researchers try to simulate more conditions as a way of accelerating the steps of building and improving prototypes, the demand for computational resources threatens to outstrip the availability of high performance processing systems.

With that in mind, Juan Alonso, a professor of aerospace and astronautics at Stanford, will work with KACST scientists to develop algorithms that frame complex tasks such as simulations in new and more efficient ways. Their goal is to make conceptual breakthroughs that will vastly increase the efficiency of simulation programs, allowing researchers to do more virtual testing with fewer computing resources.

Another project aims to improve the safety of small personal aircraft. Ilan Kroo, professor of research in the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics at Stanford, will work with KACST scientists to develop a control system to help pilots recover from a stall that precipitates a terrifying tail spin, a safety system that has, so far, seemed beyond the capabilities of aeronautical science.

In the satellite realm, Andrew Kalman, a consulting professor of aeronautics and astronautics, will work on the development of a type of experimental gear called a HATTS joint that is designed to keep a satellite’s solar array pointed toward the sun without twisting and fraying its wires, a project that arises from KACST’s focus on developing tiny but efficient orbital sensing systems.

Developing the most precise positioning technology known to science – called the Modular Gravitational Reference Sensor – will be a team led by Robert L. Byer, the William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of the School of Humanities and Sciences and Co-Director of the Stanford Photonics Research Center.

Farhat said the Center of Excellence would strengthen the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics and focus on several projects aligned with its current research thrusts, including green energy, autonomous systems and space systems.

“The COE also gives our faculty, technical staff and graduate students additional opportunities to collaborate with counterparts in other departments at Stanford as well as work with researchers at NASA Ames, KACST, KAUST, Bremen University and the German Aerospace Center, to mention only a few international partners,” he added.

Prince Turki said the KACST partnership with Stanford will help to implement the National Science Technology and Innovation Plan of Saudi Arabia.

“Our aim is to help transfer the country from an oil-dependent economy to a knowledge based economy,” Prince Turki said. “Our implementation strategy calls for strengthening international collaboration with world renowned scientific institutions, such as Stanford. We are very pleased to work with our colleagues at Stanford in fundamental research topics that are of great interest to the scientific community.”