New rocket fuel safer, cleaner and as effective as common hypergolic fuels, suggests study

Last Updated: Sun, Apr 07, 2019 20:27 hrs
ISRO - PSLV Rocket (PTI photo)

A research has indicated that it could be possible to develop rocket fuel that is much cleaner and safer than the commonly used hypergolic fuels.

The research published in the journal Science Advances also revealed that the new fuel is still just as effective as the hypergolic fuels.

"This is a new, cleaner approach to develop 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," said Tomislav Friscis, a co-senior author.

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.

MOFs are 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 the hypergolic, fuels that are so energetic they will immediately ignite in the presence of an oxidiser (since there is no oxygen to support combustion beyond the Earth's atmosphere).

The hypergolic fuels that are 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 it need to get suited up as though they were preparing for space travel themselves.

Despite precautions, around 12,000 tons of hydrazine fuels end up being released into the atmosphere every year by the aerospace industry.

"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," said Hatem Titi, a researcher.