Aluminium-water propellant promising for future space missions

October 8th, 2009 - 7:02 pm ICT by IANS  

Washington, Oct 8 (IANS) A new type of green rocket propellant, comprising frozen mixture of water and “nanoscale aluminium” powder, is being developed that could be manufactured on the moon, Mars and other water-bearing bodies, says a new study.
The aluminium-ice, or ALICE, propellant might be used to launch rockets into orbit and for long-distance space missions and also to generate hydrogen for fuel cells, said Steven Son, associate professor of mechanical engineering at Purdue University.

Purdue is working with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the Air Force Office of Scientific Research and Pennsylvania State University to develop ALICE, which was used earlier this year to launch a nine-foot-tall rocket.

The vehicle reached an altitude of 1,300 feet over Purdue’s Scholer farms, about 10 miles from campus.

“It’s a proof of concept,” Son said. “It could be improved and turned into a practical propellant. Theoretically, it also could be manufactured in distant places like the moon or Mars instead of being transported at high cost.”

The tiny size of the aluminium particles, with a diameter of billionths of a metre, is key to the propellant’s performance.

The nanoparticles combust more rapidly than larger particles and enable better control over the reaction and the rocket’s thrust, said Timothee Pourpoint, research assistant professor in the School of Aeronautics and Astronautics.

“It is considered a green propellant, producing essentially hydrogen gas and aluminium oxide,” Pourpoint said, according to a Purdue release.

“In contrast, each space shuttle flight consumes about 773 tonnes of the oxidizer ammonium perchlorate in the solid booster rockets. About 230 tonnes of hydrochloric acid immediately appears in the exhaust from such flights.”

“ALICE might one day replace some liquid or solid propellants, and, when perfected, might have a higher performance than conventional propellants,” Pourpoint said.

“It’s also extremely safe while frozen because it is difficult to accidentally ignite.”

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