Engineering 101

VIDEO: What’s the Secret to Cleaner Rocket Fuel?

By Dawn Allcot


The space race has shifted to the private sector and visionaries are setting their sights on locations beyond the moon. But the fuel used to propel rockets into space hasn’t changed since the days of Apollo 11 and the space shuttle era.

Thanks to new research out of McGill University, that could soon change with the development of new materials, a class of porous solids known as metal-organic frameworks, or MOFs. MOFs are made up of clusters of metal ions and an organic molecule called a linker.

The new fuels will use simple chemical triggers to unlock the energy of these MOFs, resulting in rocket fuel that is cleaner, safer, and just as effective as today’s hypergolic fuels.

Satellites and space stations that remain in orbit for a considerable amount of time rely on hypergolic fuels that are so energetic they will immediately ignite in the presence of an oxidizer (since there is no oxygen to support combustion beyond the Earth’s atmosphere).

Watch this NASA hypergolic fuel fire.

Today’s hypergolic fuels depend on hydrazine, a highly toxic and dangerously unstable chemical compound made up of a combination of nitrogen and hydrogen atoms. Hydrazine-based fuels are so carcinogenic that people who work with it need to get suited up as though they were preparing for space travel themselves. Despite precautions, around 12,000 tons of hydrazine fuels end up being released into the atmosphere every year by the aerospace industry.

Tomislav Friščić, a professor in the Chemistry Department at McGill, and co-senior author on the paper, published in Science Advances, calls the MOF-based mixture “a new, cleaner approach to making highly combustible fuels.

Friščić worked with co-senior author Robin D. Rogers, a former McGill researcher, and first author, Hatem Titi, a post-doctoral fellow who works in Friščić’s lab.

Friščić plans to collaborate with McGill and Acsynam, an existing spin-off company from his laboratory, to commercialize the technology.

Source: McGill University

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