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NASA Earth Space

Air Force & NASA Fire Off Green Rocket 157

Posted by kdawson
from the one-of-these-days-alice dept.
coondoggie writes "NASA and the Air Force said today they had successfully launched a 9-ft. rocket 1,300 feet into the sky, powered by aluminum powder and water ice. This combination of fuel elements, referred to as ALICE, has the potential to replace some liquid or solid propellants. The technology is being developed at Purdue University and Pennsylvania State University. Aside from its environmental benefiits, ALICE has the advantage that it could be manufactured in far-away places, such as the moon or Mars, instead of being transported to distant horizons at great cost, researchers said."
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Air Force & NASA Fire Off Green Rocket

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  • by religious freak (1005821) on Tuesday August 25, 2009 @12:07AM (#29182133)
    Who cares so much if it's "green"? How many of these do we launch a year - that might be what maybe 1/100 of a minute of smog eminating from California? Now... if we can easily manufacture these off earth, THAT should be the headline, IMHO.
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Rei (128717)

      The real goal is being able to build it easily on other planets. Although I don't know what they're thinking when they mention the moon. We're yet to find ice on the moon. Hydrogen is exceedingly rare on the lunar surface.

    • by anagama (611277)
      Besides that, aluminum requires enormous amounts of electricity. I fail to see how aluminum fuel can be thought of as green considering the amount of coal that goes into our electrical grid.
      • by timmarhy (659436)
        shh don't tell them the whole "green" movement is bullshit it'll kill their buzz.
        • I made the mistake of sending the Prius vs. Hummer total lifetime pollution article to a tree hugger I know.

          Now they're just confused.

          • by dbIII (701233)
            It's true. A Hummer is going to spend so much of it's lifetime getting repaired that it's not going to be on the road much burning fuel.
            A Hummer is just a status symbol, a bold statement that you are rich and so is your mechanic. Old East German quality combined with West German prices, a Mercedes in price and a Travant in substance.
            To be serious a Prius is there to solve the problem of stop-start traffic. Take it out of that situation and you can find better things.
            • by Ihlosi (895663)

              Old East German quality combined with West German prices, a Mercedes in price and a Travant in substance.

              No no no. If it was really built like a Trabant, it would weigh less than one ton.

      • by wisty (1335733)

        Relax. The Air Force is involved. It wouldn't go ahead if it was inefficient.

      • Just smelt it in Iceland, then, using their vast hydroelectric and geothermal resources and supporting their failing economy. ;-)
    • Wow! Talk about transparent aluminum! You can see right through while it's burning in a big fiery ball. Look it sparkles!

      Yea, It's raining sapphire!

      Oh GOD! RUN FOR THE HILLS! IT'S RAINING SAPPHIRES!

      Isn't this similar to what caused a recent extinguished some significant life about 13,000 years ago? Didn't they discover a fine layer of microscopic diamond ash that was responsible for a lot animals, especially the Mammoths and people dieing in North America? Sure this was on a much larger scale and s
  • by snarkasaurus (627205) on Tuesday August 25, 2009 @12:16AM (#29182189)

    In what universe is powdered aluminum "greener" than a hydrogen/oxygen rocket? Even hydrazine burns to an inert end product if I remember my chemistry right (no guarantees there), aluminum is anything but inert.

    • The one where there are no cars.
    • by bob5972 (693297)
      But it burns water and aluminum. Using natural water makes anything green.
    • by wvmarle (1070040) on Tuesday August 25, 2009 @01:42AM (#29182637)

      It is easier to produce and easier to store: no need for high-pressure supercooled storage as needed for H2 and O2 storage. Besides, pure O2 is a very dangerous material to handle, which is why in most labs O2 cylinders are at relative low pressure. A leak can cause a fire: grease can combust spontaneously when in contact with pure O2. So handling H2 and O2 costs a lot of effort and energy. That makes them expensive as well. And in general: higher total cost means more resources used and that is always bad for the environment.

      Hydrazine is also a very bad poison. Maybe not when it is burnt completely - but 100% combustion is always hard to reach, and I'm too lazy to look up the combustion of hydrazine now. And again it is a real danger in the handling stage. Or when a rocket were to explode upon launch, that is also still a real issue.

      Many other solid propellants are either poisonous themselves, or have bad combustion products. Commonly used propellants are very expensive too.

      This nAl-H2O (nAl = nano-Aluminium) product is very interesting as the combustion products are Al2O3 (silica) and H2. In the solid state it is also safe, you can probably eat it without adverse health effects. No nutritional values though, the Al particles likely pass unchanged.

      And it has other interesting applications as well: nAl-H2O can be stored safely and easily long term, not much risk of leaks as it is a toothpaste-like substance at room temperature. If you were to bring pure nAl particles on e.g. a submarine you can use the reaction with sea water to propel your submarine with the heat of the reaction directly or with the H2 that is produced.

      And finally nAl is relatively cheap to produce and Al is plentiful on this planet, water of course also doesn't cost much, and as such it can be a really cheap alternative to current fuels. Production of Al from ore takes a lot of electricity as it is an electrolysis process, which is an environmental issue, though this can be solved by using water, wind or even solar power.

      • by oldhack (1037484)
        According to your explanation, the new fuel seems to possess many superior qualities, but labeling it as "green" seems weaselly marketing BS seen too often recently. When did "green" replaced "better"?
        • by wvmarle (1070040)

          Labeling it "green" is for sure good for marketing. But that doesn't mean it's not true. The main issue about this fuel (after reading up a bit more on it on Google) is how to use it. The reaction is known and studied since the 1960s already.

      • Besides, pure O2 is a very dangerous material to handle,

        My ass its dangerous. Its so not dangerous just about any tom dick or harry can get a bottle and keep it in the garage. Its a *lot* safer than acetylene, and you can have that in your garage right next to the oxygen, in a welding kit. The last O2 bottles I had were 3000psi. Hardly low pressure.

        LOX is also pretty safe for the same reasons. Sure you don't go around smoking and stuff. But LOX and O2 and industry standard and quite safe to handle with minimal procedures.

        However, having used both Nos and HT

        • by wvmarle (1070040)

          The last O2 bottles I had were 3000psi. Hardly low pressure.

          3000 psi, that is just over 20 MPa. That is indeed relative low pressure for gas cylinders. Safe, inert gases such as helium, carbon dioxide and nitrogen come in 200 MPa cilinders. Or 30,000 psi for you. I recall even inflammables such as hydrogen come in 200 MPa cylinders. But I have to say it's been like 15 years that I worked with those gases in a lab.

          Acetylene is also a special case, according to Wikipedia that is usually dissolved in a solvent inside it's bottle as it tends to explode when overpressurised.

          • by ncc74656 (45571) *

            The last O2 bottles I had were 3000psi. Hardly low pressure.

            3000 psi, that is just over 20 MPa. That is indeed relative low pressure for gas cylinders. Safe, inert gases such as helium, carbon dioxide and nitrogen come in 200 MPa cilinders.

            The high-pressure gauge on the carbon-dioxide tank feeding my kegerator usually reads only somewhere around 800-850 psi. Carbon dioxide can exist in liquid form at room temperature with that pressure over it. As gas is drawn out, more gas boils out of the liquid until e

      • Just a nitpick : "Al2O3 (silica) ". No. Silica is Silicium Dioxyde (SiO2). Al2O3 is alumina.
      • which is why in most labs O2 cylinders are at relative low pressure.

        Then labs must be wusses compared to every welding shop in town, where O2 is delivered at 3000 psi (21 MPa for our benighted friends) in a bunch of old metal cylinders clanging around in the back of a truck.

        Of course, the same goes for all of those recreational scuba divers - 3000 psi strapped to their back.

        Unless I'm greatly mistaken, and the places you work consider this relatively low pressure. In which case, I apologize profusely.

      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by damburger (981828)

        Side note re hydrazine; 100% combustion is not only impossible it is undesirable for rockets. Most are run a little fuel rich so that there are unburned and partially burned molecules in the exhaust which are lighter than the oxides you would get from complete combustion, and thus for the same energy give slightly higher exhaust velocity.

        Hydrazine pollution is a big part of why the Russians are planning to dump Proton for Angara; on the face of it a foolish decision because Proton is cheap, reliable, and al

      • Hydrazine is downright evil. It's extremely toxic, but also hallucinogen so you get disoriented before you're killed off, at low concentrations. At even lower concentrations it is "just" carcinogen.

        Oh, and did I mention that it's explosive? It explodes if you look at it wrong.

      • Mind you, I can think of smarter things to do with water than to use it as propellant in space where it won't be reclaimed by our biosphere.

      • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

        by snarkasaurus (627205)

        I have an O2 cylinder in my garage that runs 3000psi when full. Welding gas, y'know. Every mechanic's shop has one. Hydrogen is also used as a welding gas, it is commonly stored and shipped in the same truck as the O2 cylinders. Along with propane, acetalene, MAP gas, etc.

        Aluminum is -very- expensive to produce compared to liquefied gas. Its refined from bauxite by electrolysis. They put the Al refineries next to hydroelectric dams instead of next to the bauxite mine, that should tell you something eh

        • by mpe (36238)
          Not saying it couldn't work nicely as a propellant for use on the moon or asteroids, where water ice and recoverable aluminum could be found.

          It's the latter bit which is the problem. You just don't tend to find highly reactive metals in their elemental state.

          Thermite could too.

          For a rocket you want gas rather than liquid...
    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by Jarjarthejedi (996957)

      Free Aluminum is non-inert (that's kind of the entire point of a rocket which uses free aluminum as one of its fuels). Aluminum bound to oxygen (like that which is found in water ice, aluminum's bond is more powerful that hydrogen), on the other hand, can be (depending on formula of course) one of the strongest bonds in the natural world. Bauxite (AL2O3) is very inert compared to most other compounds.

      Just because one of the chemicals involved is non-inert doesn't mean the product will be non-inert. Chemistr

      • by damburger (981828)
        However, applying a little basic rocket science on top of that says that for optimal performance you run fuel rich, because aluminium particles are much lighter than aluminium oxide particles, and thus you want some of the fuel to be unburned and act purely as reaction mass. Part of the pollution problems with other rocket propellants (storable and solid) is that they don't burn some of their propellant. Its easy to run an environmentally optimal mix when you want to get to 1,300ft - its a little harder whe
    • I'm pretty sure that quite a pile of waste gets generated in the aluminum refining process. It is separated from the ore using electrolysis. So while the rocket exhaust itself may be "green", the production of the fuel certainly is not.
      • by PitaBred (632671)
        Would there be a reason we can't take the aluminum from soda cans and such that's already been separated, and powder that?
    • by damburger (981828)

      In the universe of PR. In terms of carbon footprint, I guess all cryogens are bad because of the electricity required (but why not get that from a green source? Like a nuclear power station ;-) )

      However, kicking particles of aluminium into the air is pollution, so not green when you get past the simplistic view of carbon emissions. Aluminium has been linked to some fairly nasty human health conditions when ingested in excess.

    • Hydrogen is not a storable propellant. Solid propellants such as the ones used in the Shuttle SRBs produce clorine gas on combustion.
  • To the Moon (Score:5, Funny)

    by bobdotorg (598873) on Tuesday August 25, 2009 @12:22AM (#29182227)

    I suspect that the rocket's first stage will have a Radium - Aluminum - Phosphorus based fuel (RAALPh) and will propel the ALICE stage to the moon. Straight to the moon. One of these days.

    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      I suspect that the rocket's first stage will have a Radium - Aluminum - Phosphorus based fuel (RAALPh) and will propel the ALICE stage to the moon. Straight to the moon. One of these days.

      Oh. Mod points gone. Oh my ribs...

      • Re: (Score:1, Insightful)

        by Anonymous Coward
        Snap! I accidentally my entire lunch laughing at that one.
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by moosesocks (264553)

      Well, the radium and phosphorus would certainly ensure that the rocket stays "green" (even in the dark)

  • Does this mean that we could send all the stuff we need to launch a rocket to the moon, assemble it there, then make the fuel and launch it from the moon? It seems to me that doing this would save quite a bit of fuel and allow us to go farther into space.
    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by MichaelSmith (789609)

      It would be easier if water could be found on the moon.

    • Wouldn't conservation of energy still apply? You'd expend all the energy needed to lift the mass of "one standard rocket ship" out of Earth, land it on the moon, then expend even more energy getting it off the surface of the moon. How is that better than lifting "one standard rocket ship" directly off the Earth? (Yes, I admit there might be scale effects where we don't have a large efficient rocket capable of lifting said mass in one go.)
      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        Wouldn't conservation of energy still apply? You'd expend all the energy needed to lift the mass of "one standard rocket ship" out of Earth, land it on the moon, then expend even more energy getting it off the surface of the moon. How is that better than lifting "one standard rocket ship" directly off the Earth? (Yes, I admit there might be scale effects where we don't have a large efficient rocket capable of lifting said mass in one go.)

        You build one "standard rocket" on Earth, which is capable of going to

        • by Yetihehe (971185)

          we'll probably use aerobraking to some extent

          On the moon?

          • we'll probably use aerobraking to some extent

            On the moon?

            You were inattentive. The "aerobraking" comment was for going places FROM the moon, not TO the moon.

            If we were talking about going TO the moon, then 5 km/sec would be ludicrous, since lunar escape speed is less than 2.4 km/sec. And the deltaV required for that was assumed within the 15 km/sec of the "standard rocket".

  • I was watching a TV show about this last year. I heard that you could repack Testor's engines. They used aluminum powder, potassium nitrate, and sulfur. I think that you are allowed to launch them up to 2000 ft.
  • ...She goes off like a rocket!

  • by Ron Bennett (14590) on Tuesday August 25, 2009 @12:35AM (#29182315) Homepage

    All this talk about this and that going "green" is just puff; no real meaning beyond getting PR and more funding.

    I don't see how any rocket can be considered "green" considering most all of the environmental impact is not from firing the rocket, but is from building it.

    Ending all wars and stabilizing human population would go far further towards safeguarding the environment than all these feel-good "green" initiatives.

    Ron

    • Ending all wars and stabilizing human population

      Aren't those near diametrically opposite actions? Last time I checked, wars or plagues are some of the best checks on population growth.

      • by anagama (611277)
        Apparently, not enough. The black death was but a blip [susps.org]. Real population control will require real intent to control population.
      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by damburger (981828)
        Not really. The only proven effective method of stabilizing population is to give women the choice over whether to have children. Happily, this is also the Right Thing To Do. Sometimes the universe throws you a bone.
        • by inviolet (797804)

          Not really. The only proven effective method of stabilizing population is to give women the choice over whether to have children. Happily, this is also the Right Thing To Do. Sometimes the universe throws you a bone.

          But then most children will be had by bored and/or irresponsible women -- which means: the lower class. You need one more step in your grand plan: turn fertility off by default, using a chemical in the water or whatever. Then offer free pills, to anybody who wants one, to turn it back on.

          • by damburger (981828)
            How ironic that, given your signature, you would advocate forcible medication of 'undesirables' because you don't like their moral behaviour. You want to stop the 'lower classes' from having children? Why not just call them 'degenerate races' and be done with it?
            • by inviolet (797804)

              [Turn fertility off by default using a chemical in the water, and offer free pills to anyone to turn it back on.]

              How ironic that, given your signature, you would advocate forcible medication of 'undesirables' because you don't like their moral behaviour. You want to stop the 'lower classes' from having children? Why not just call them 'degenerate races' and be done with it?

              1. Indeed I do NOT like the moral behavior of the lower class.
              2. Your paraphrase of my post is dishonest -- particularly the word 'forc

    • by myrdos2 (989497)
      I had thought it burned with a cool green flame.

      Damn it.
  • Isn't it already taken [wikipedia.org]?

  • OK. I want details. How fine does the aluminum powder have to be? Is it available commercially, or do I need to get out a grinder and a piece of bar stock? Do you need to powder your water ice to mix them together, or can you mix them while the water's liquid and then cool them while mixing, maybe in something like an ice cream maker? I guess the first question should have been, how stable is the stuff at room temperature? If it is stable at room temperature, what does it take to set it off - I mean,

    • The Aluminum powder in the article is nano-scale, good luck with that grinder. Normal Aluminum powder could probably produce a similar (though much less powerful) effect since it's one of the two components in (the most common form of) Thermite.

    • by Bent Mind (853241)

      OK. I want details. How fine does the aluminum powder have to be? Is it available commercially, or do I need to get out a grinder and a piece of bar stock?

      Curious about it, I Googled nano aluminum powder. It seems easy to purchase it. Several sites sell it. I also found some interesting bits of information.

      There appear to be a few different processes to creating it. Here is one example:

      Aluminum nanoparticle is produced by laser evaporation process. The raw material used is high purity Aluminum.

      Another example:

      The nano aluminum particles were produced in different ambiance by the wire explosion process.

      It also has a lot of applications. Just to name a few, I found references to rocket propellant, micro-electronics, and high-strength alloys. Cool stuff.

      Now as to the rest of your questions, I'm still curious...

    • Adam and Jamie (Mythbusters) already did have a go at this one, and didn't know it. They put a shedload of thermite (Fe2O3 + Al2) on top of bricks of ice, and watch the amazingly energetic explosion, in difference to regular thermite burning.

      It was in an episode that aired in the last week or two.

  • by ShooterNeo (555040) on Tuesday August 25, 2009 @02:12AM (#29182789)

    All these gigantic federal government agencies commonly put on displays like this to look good in public and to make the next budget request go smoother. Truth is, any aerospace project run by the government costs so many resources that it's kind of irrelevent whether it's environmentally friendly or not. If you spend hundreds of millions of dollars on something, your actions cause the labor of thousands of people, all of whom will burn up all kinds of resources to get the job done. It doesn't really matter what the resulting rocket burns - the pollution from all the machinery and coal power plants and pickup trucks and countless other things is far greater.

    The government needs to do what private industry can't : research a cost effective vehicle for accessing space. Whether that be an elevator, a bank of lasers, a gigantic railgun, or a factory in Russia mass producing simple rockets, we need something drastically better than the current crap. Until something is done about the stupendous costs of rockets, it's pointless to even discuss trips to far off planets and other big manned expeditions.

  • Still going to be various nasty nitrogen compounds from the heat of the exhaust interacting with the atmosphere I bet.

  • Can I use this ALICE to build an inexpensive rocket myself?

  • by mcgrew (92797) *

    And googled, and read all the comments, but I'm still in the dark as to how the thing actually works. Can anyone enlighten me?

  • "Spacecraft might one day refuel on the moon or Mars using plain old ice."

    Isn't there not a lot of water on the moon and Mars? In fact isn't there not even a lot of hydrogen?

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