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Yeah, It’s Rocket Science May 19, 2015

Posted by Mark Flavin in General.
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ALICE Team Photo Credit: Purdue University

ALICE Team Photo Credit: Purdue University

If you add aluminum powder (cheap) and water (free) what do you get? Rocket fuel! That is what the team at Purdue University has been working on in a propulsion program called ALICE (Al – aluminum ICE – frozen water). It seams amazing until you think about the chemistry that is going on. The aluminum is being oxidized by the oxygen present in water which also liberates hydrogen, forming a very combustible low toxicity mixture. While this sounds too good to be true there are several reasons that may prevent you from stirring up a batch in your kitchen. The aluminum is in the form of nano-particles. These tiny pieces of the metal allow much more surface area for the oxidation to occur but are also very difficult to blend with water. What the researchers came up with is a recipe that involves small amounts of other chemicals (a water gelling agent) and HCL to control the PH and very careful blending in an inert gas environment. It is rocket fuel and it is possible to start spontaneous combustion with the oxygen in the air. After the blending and mixing the compound is frozen with a removable core, just like other solid rocket fuels.

To check the performance of the fuel the team ran a series of firings to characterize various batches. The best of the tests was and impulse of 251 N-s, not bad for water and aluminum. The formula was loaded into a test flight vehicle which is shown in the photo above being proudly held by the Purdue team, and test flown as a proof of concept. There is a good youtube video of the whole process including the rocket launch. Very impressive results.

Now why is this a big deal? In our solar system including our moon there is evidence of water and combined within the lunar regolith and in the make up of asteroids there is water and aluminum. This technology is meaningful in the broad context of using our solar system mineral and water assets to both expand and enrich our world. With an abundant source of fuel we can begin the process of using what is there and not have to haul huge amounts of fuel with us. It makes good sense and yeah, it’s rocket science.

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