Aviation NASA is developing green fuel for spacecraft

Published on July 19th, 2013 | by Tina Casey


NASA Sets Its Sights On $45 Million Green Fuel Mission

July 19th, 2013 by  

NASA has set an ambitious three-year goal for developing green fuel for spacecraft, and it looks like the mission is right on target. Called Green Propellant Infusion Mission (GPIM), the $45 million program is spearheaded by Ball Aerospace in partnership with the company Aerojet Rocketdyne and other public sector partners, with the aim of creating a high-powered substitute for hydrazine, a ubiquitous but highly toxic and corrosive fuel for rockets, satellites and spacecraft. So far so good: not only did the new fuel pass its first major milestone, it packed more punch than conventional hydrazine.

NASA is developing green fuel for spacecraft

Morpheus green fuel project by Morpheus Lander.

NASA’s Green Fuel For Spacecraft

NASA also has another green fuel project going on called Morpheus, but before we get into that let’s see how GPIM is doing.

The big milestone was a test of a hydrazine substitute formulated around ammonium nitrate, which Ball describes as a Hydroxyl Ammonium Nitrate (HAN) fuel/oxidizer blend, aka AF-M315E.

The AF-M315E which was used to power a 22 newton thruster, a newton being an international unit of force (btw we’re going with the standard lower case for the first letter when newton is spelled out in English, and upper case for the abbreviation. If you have a different standard let us know in the comments).

Passing the 22 newton thruster test was critical because that thruster needs to be synchronized with four 1N thrusters for orbit, altitude and de-orbit maneuvers.

Ball and its partners also get an extra pat on the back for achieving an improved performance, which Ball describes as “nearly 50 percent better” compared to conventional hydrazine. That translates into increased payloads and longer missions, on top of reducing launch hazards and other operational issues involved with hydrazine.

According to NASA, AF-M315E is more dense than hydrazine, which means that it requires less storage space for the same volume of fuel. It also has a lower freezing point, so storage temperature control doesn’t need to divert as much power.

We Built This Green Fuel!

Aside from Aerojet Rocketdyne, the other GPIM partners include NASA Glenn Research Center, NASA Kennedy Space Center, the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory at Edwards Air Force Base, and the U.S. Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center at Kirkland Air Force Base.

The deployment of public sector resources to develop them new fuel is critical because, as with so many other cutting edge technologies, the risk factor involved in the early stages of development is too great to attract sufficient private sector dollars. Or, as NASA puts it:

“Maturing a space technology, such as a revolutionary green propellant, to mission readiness through relevant environment testing and demonstration is a significant challenge from a cost, schedule and risk perspective. NASA’s Technology Demonstration Missions Program performs this function, bridging the gap between laboratory confirmation of a technology and its initial use on an operational mission.”

Project Morpheus

Now let’s check in on another NASA/private sector green propulsion system under the moniker of Project Morpheus. This one is based on a mixture of liquid oxygen and methane, the attraction being that methane could be harvested from other operations in space, such as the biogas generated by human waste (apparently the International Space Station already produces enough biogas to get the job done).

A hardware problem interfered with a test of the new propellant last summer, leading to a dramatic crash-and-burn event, but since then Project Morpheus has been moving forward at a steady clip.

Other NASA green projects include electric flight technology, a “green” manufacturing process for advanced batteries, and of course a long history in solar power.

 Follow me on Twitter and Google+.

Check out our new 93-page EV report, based on over 2,000 surveys collected from EV drivers in 49 of 50 US states, 26 European countries, and 9 Canadian provinces.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

About the Author

specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.

  • TechnicaG

    Unfortunately, the “carbon footprint” of the Green Fuel development effort will completely dwarf any possible environmental advantages of such a fuel. Space program propellants use such an unmeasurably small amount of energy that we really should be spending human effort (synonymous with energy consumption / carbon emission) on developing more efficient technologies (or Green Fuels) for the transportation and energy sectors.

    • Bob_Wallace

      Would you show us the basis for your claim?

      “Hydroxyl Ammonium Nitrate (HAN) fuel/oxidizer blend” and “a mixture of liquid oxygen and methane” can be produced with electricity, can they not?

      Electricity can have an very low carbon footprint if we use renewables.

      • TechnicaG

        Good point– I would guess that green production methods would be part of the NASA goals, but I was criticizing the mindset of spending a lot of energy in development effort to save only a little. In order to navigate our transition to renewable energy, we must make sure that the enthusiasm for a given technological solution doesn’t blind us to the energy costs of creating or using the solution. Yaaay for NASA, however!

        • gopher652003

          They are somewhat concerned with the carbon footprint of the fuels, but they’re more concerned with the fact that current fuels are extremely toxic. These new fuels are “green” in that you won’t immediately die upon breathing in a seemingly insignificant amount of fumes.

  • Wayne Williamson

    very interesting…I hope they can make this work..just a side note, the ingredients are normally used in explosives(except for the Hydroxyl)…
    Also, for those metric illiterate(meaning most of the USA)…a newton equals one joule or 1 watt second or the amount of energy to move one kilogram one meter in 1 second.

    • Matt

      Rockets are just a payload on top of a controlled explosion. So yes all the fuels are explosive

      • Wayne Williamson

        very good point;-)

    • Newton is a unit of force, not energy.

      The amount of energy needed to move 1 kg in 1 second over 1 m is not 1 joule. If the kg is floating around free in space at a speed of 1 m/s, that energy is 0. Since the days of Newton we know that motion at constant speed costs no energy, acceleration and deceleration does (as does moving an object through a gas or liquid).

      Perhaps you are confused with the energy required to accelerate a mass of 1 kg to a speed of 1 m/s. 1 Joule equals the energy needed to accelerate a mass of 1 kg to a speed of √ 2 m/s.

      • Wayne Williamson

        yes, I meant acceleration. I am however confused by the symbol and the 2.

Back to Top ↑