Researchers to spark green revolution in space travel with new rocket fuel

8 Apr 2019

SpaceX’s Iridium-8 mission taking off. Image: SpaceX

Could rocket fuel go green? Researchers in the US have revealed a new fuel concept substantially cleaner and safer than the one we’ve been using for decades.

The technology behind the launches of spacecraft and humans out of Earth’s orbit has remained pretty much unchanged for decades, and the same goes for rocket fuel.

While currently the best way of overcoming the challenge of gravity, rocket fuel remains a highly pollutive substance, as documented last year by Ian Whittaker, a lecturer at Nottingham Trent University.

However, new research published to Science Advances by a team from McGill University in Canada showed it may be possible to create a new type of rocket fuel that is both much cleaner and safer than traditional hypergolic fuels, all while producing the same amount of thrust.

This new fuel uses simple chemical ‘triggers’ to unlock the energy of porous solids known as metal organic frameworks (MOFs), recently seen in the major hybrid ‘super plant’ breakthrough.

In hypergolic fuels, energy is released in enormous quantities when the fuel comes in contact with an oxidiser. These fuels rely on hydrazine, a highly toxic and dangerously unstable chemical compound made up of a combination of nitrogen and hydrogen atoms. Also, hydrazine-based fuels are considered so carcinogenic that the crew responsible for working with them must wear the most protective hazardous materials suits possible.

Over the course of a year, space launches release more than 12,000 tonnes of hydrazine into Earth’s atmosphere, according to the McGill University team. MOFs, however, do not require hydrazine, making this new solution more viable as space travel only increases in the decades ahead.

“Although we are still in the early stages of working with these materials in the lab, these results open up the possibility of developing a class of new, clean and highly tuneable hypergolic fuels for the aerospace industry,” said the study’s first author, Hatem Titi.

Updated, 9.20am, 9 April 2019: This article has been amended to reflect that McGill University is in Canada, not the US.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic