Skip to Content

A New Recipe for Rocket Fuel

Researchers are using aluminum and frozen water to make a propellant that could allow rockets to refuel on the moon or even Mars.
November 30, 2009

Last week researchers from Purdue and Penn State University launched a rocket that uses an unconventional propellant: aluminum-ice. The fuel mix, dubbed ALICE, is made of nano-aluminum powder and frozen water, and gets its thrust from the chemical reaction between the ingredients. The propellant is environmentally friendly, and it could perhaps allow spacecraft to refuel at locations like the moon, where water has been discovered.

A time-lapse photo of a rocket launch powered by new
aluminum-ice propellant. Credit: Purdue University

Using aluminum for fuel is not completely new–the space shuttle’s solid rocket boosters use a small amount of the metal, as will NASA’s Ares rocket. But the new work involves making aluminum one of the key ingredients by using nanoscale particles. These tiny particles, when ignited, combust more rapidly than larger particles, forcing more exhaust gases out of the metal and giving the rocket the necessary kick.

The oxygen and hydrogen in water molecules enhance the combustion of the aluminum. Freezing the propellant keeps it intact, avoiding any premature reactions.

The propellant was able to lift a rocket 396 meters during an August flight test, which was funded by NASA and the Air Force Office of Scientific Research. Now, for even better performance, the researchers are working on adjusting the ratios of different ingredients and possibly mixing the nano-aluminum with larger aluminum particles.

A water-based propellant might one day mean that spacecraft could carry less fuel when traveling to distant locations like the moon or even mars. But it would also be nice to have a “greener” fuel for rocket launches back on Earth.

Keep Reading

Most Popular

A Roomba recorded a woman on the toilet. How did screenshots end up on Facebook?

Robot vacuum companies say your images are safe, but a sprawling global supply chain for data from our devices creates risk.

A startup says it’s begun releasing particles into the atmosphere, in an effort to tweak the climate

Make Sunsets is already attempting to earn revenue for geoengineering, a move likely to provoke widespread criticism.

10 Breakthrough Technologies 2023

Every year, we pick the 10 technologies that matter the most right now. We look for advances that will have a big impact on our lives and break down why they matter.

These exclusive satellite images show that Saudi Arabia’s sci-fi megacity is well underway

Weirdly, any recent work on The Line doesn’t show up on Google Maps. But we got the images anyway.

Stay connected

Illustration by Rose Wong

Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review

Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.

Thank you for submitting your email!

Explore more newsletters

It looks like something went wrong.

We’re having trouble saving your preferences. Try refreshing this page and updating them one more time. If you continue to get this message, reach out to us at customer-service@technologyreview.com with a list of newsletters you’d like to receive.