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Cleaner, safer rocket fuel could still have plenty of power

(Credit: SpaceX/Unsplash)

It may be possible to create rocket fuel that is cleaner and safer than fuels commonly used today—but still just as effective, according to a new study.

The new fuels use simple chemical “triggers” to unlock the energy of one of the hottest new materials, a class of porous solids known as metal-organic frameworks, or MOFs, made up of clusters of metal ions and an organic molecule called a linker.

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

The hypergolic fuels currently in use 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 them need to suit up as if preparing for space travel themselves. Despite precautions, the aerospace industry releases around 12,000 tons of hydrazine fuels into the atmosphere every year.

“This is a new, cleaner approach to making highly combustible fuels, that are not only significantly safer than those currently in use, but they also respond or combust very quickly, which is an essential quality in rocket fuel,” says Tomislav Friščić, a professor in the chemistry department at McGill University and co-senior author of the paper.

“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 tunable hypergolic fuels for the aerospace industry,” says Hatem Titi, a postdoctoral fellow who works in Friščić’s lab and lead author of the paper.

Friščić is interested in commercializing this technology, and will work with McGill and Acsynam, an existing spin-off company from his laboratory, to make this happen.

The paper appears in Science Advances.

Source: McGill University