A View from Brittany Sauser

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.

Cut off? Read unlimited articles today.

Become an Insider
Already an Insider? Log in.

Uh oh–you've read all of your free articles for this month.

Insider Premium
$179.95/yr US PRICE

More from Intelligent Machines

Artificial intelligence and robots are transforming how we work and live.

Want more award-winning journalism? Subscribe to Insider Basic.
  • Insider Basic {! insider.prices.basic !}*

    {! insider.display.menuOptionsLabel !}

    Six issues of our award winning magazine and daily delivery of The Download, our newsletter of what’s important in technology and innovation.

    See details+

    What's Included

    Bimonthly home delivery and unlimited 24/7 access to MIT Technology Review’s website.

    The Download. Our daily newsletter of what's important in technology and innovation.

/
You've read all of your free articles this month. This is your last free article this month. You've read of free articles this month. or  for unlimited online access.