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New Aluminum-Ice Rocket Propellant Tested 130

Posted by CmdrTaco
from the burn-it-up dept.
eldavojohn writes "With the problem of moving conventional rocket fuel to the Moon and Mars on their minds, researchers from Purdue and Penn State successfully tested and demonstrated the use of aluminum-ice (ALICE) as fuel. In a paper from last August they outlined how it would work (PDF), and now they know it does. Space.com also has more information on the paper and how nano-scale aluminum functions as a fuel."
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New Aluminum-Ice Rocket Propellant Tested

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  • In other words (Score:5, Insightful)

    by BadAnalogyGuy (945258) <BadAnalogyGuy@gmail.com> on Monday November 30, 2009 @10:16AM (#30270128)

    Fly me to the moon. Let me play among the stars. Let me see what spring is like on Jupiter and Mars.

    We spend so much time arguing with each other here on Slashdot, but when it comes down to it, we're all in this together. We are going to need to secure a future for future generations, so putting an effort into developing non-volatile fuels which can be formulated anywhere is one huge step towards getting off this rock.

    Aluminum is plentiful anywhere we intend to go. This could really be the breakthrough that we've been looking for.

    In other words, please be true. In other words, I love you.

    • The ice part is water ice. You need a supply of water.
      • by binarylarry (1338699) on Monday November 30, 2009 @10:43AM (#30270388)

        Yep and apparently they've figured out a way to make water from ice.

        Man, what science can do these days is amazing!

      • by Bakkster (1529253)

        The ice part is water ice. You need a supply of water.

        Read it again.

        Aluminum is plentiful anywhere we intend to go.

        The most likely reason we want to go somewhere long enough term to consider creating new rocket fuel on location will need water (or copious oxygen, hydrogen, and energy) already to support long-term human inhabitants. So, obviously, the limiting factor is just Aluminum, which is also plentiful.

    • Non volatile? It is extremely volatile, just hard to light. I guess they use a magnesium fuse.
      • by Dunbal (464142)

        Non volatile? It is extremely volatile, just hard to light.

            It's not hard to light. Just ram it [wikipedia.org] with an aircraft carrier and it will burn fine.

      • by Bigjeff5 (1143585)

        Volatile, particularly when refering to explosive material, means unstable. Nitro-glycerin is volatile, TNT is less so even though they have a similar explosiveness (TNT is made from nitro-glycerin). Volatility has nothing to do with explosiveness, though a lot of extremely volatile substances (like nitro-glycerin) explosive precisely because they are so volatile.

        Atoms are absolutely non-volatile, but if you can manage to split one - BOOOOM!!

        You essentially said "Hard to light? It is extremely easy to lig

      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by TheRaven64 (641858)
        Volatile means that it vaporises easily, not that it burns (although vaporising at room temperature and reacting with oxygen make things easy to burn). Aluminium does not become vapour easily and so is non-volatile. If you mix it with rust and light it with a magnesium flame, it will burn pretty well though...
    • ... in the form of aluminum oxides. It is most certainly not plentiful in the form of metallic aluminum, and the oxidized form is, well, already oxidized, and won't be oxidizing again in your propellant unless you reduce it first. Which takes an enormous amount of energy. Which means we're pretty much back to where we started. Not that ALICE is a useless technology, but you'll either need to haul your aluminum with you or make it on site - both of which would have significant problems.
    • by router (28432)

      Welcome to Costco.

    • Let me see what spring is like on Jupiter and Mars.

      It's overrated and the lodgings really suck.

  • ALICE? (Score:5, Funny)

    by LocutusMIT (10726) on Monday November 30, 2009 @10:20AM (#30270170) Homepage

    One of these days, ALICE. Wham! Pow! Straight to the Moon!

    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by Anonymous Coward
      Alice? Who the f**k is Alice?
      • Re:ALICE? (Score:5, Informative)

        by Ethanol-fueled (1125189) on Monday November 30, 2009 @10:55AM (#30270516) Homepage Journal
        You may be too young to remember, but it was acceptable and even funny to beat your wife in the '50's.

        Get off my lawn or one of these days...POW! Right in the kisser!
        • by jadavis (473492)

          You missed the joke.

        • I don't recall the "Straight to the moon!" line as being a laugh line even back in the day.

          The whole premise of Ralph Kramden was, "You know that crabby bus driver, I wonder what he is like to his wife and friends?"

          Ralph on one hand was supposed to be an object of the viewer's sympathy -- a working class guy barely making ends meet, living in a tiny apartment with his wife, barely any furniture or any other possessions to their name. On the other hand, Ralph was a blowhard, a guy with a chip on his sho

          • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

            by lennier (44736)

            "now that is not funny either. And one does not laugh."

            No, the mental image of (snk) Tiger Woods being whacked with a golf club by his wife is (snurf) most definitely not funny. Not even in abstract.

            Sorry, something in my eye. I'll be right back.

            • Yeah, cause what possible damage could a healthy young woman do to a guy's skull with nothing but a 4 foot long steel club for a weapon? Why she was probably barely able to shatter the safety glass on the vehicle. Let's hope she doesn't get mad at one of her kids one day, eh?
          • > I don't recall the "Straight to the moon!" line as being a laugh line even
            > back in the day.

            The humor (such as it was) was in the fact that Alice was utterly unimpressed by the threat.

        • Since the parent is modded "Informative" I do have to say: what utter BS!
      • Re:ALICE? (Score:4, Informative)

        by Speare (84249) on Monday November 30, 2009 @10:56AM (#30270526) Homepage Journal
        For those not in on the joke, see very early US television comedy, "The Honeymooners." Its characters were the original inspiration for the cartoon Flintstones, which might give you an indication of the age of this joke.
        • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

          And it's worth pointing out that in the show the character being quoted never hit his wife and in fact spent a lot of time begging and toadying toward her.
      • by OzPeter (195038)

        Alice? Who the f**k is Alice?

        it's a reference to her restaurant and the 8x10 glossy photographs that were part of the investigation as to who belted her to the moon.. you know ..

        "You can get anything you want at Alice's restaurant .."

        (Wham! Pow! Straight to the moon)

      • by Dunbal (464142)

        Alice? Who the f**k is Alice?

              One of Umbrella Corporation's secret projects. And I wouldn't mess with her...

      • Re:ALICE? (Score:5, Funny)

        by palegray.net (1195047) <philip.paradis@p ... t ['ray' in gap]> on Monday November 30, 2009 @12:16PM (#30271432) Homepage Journal
        Alice is a friend of Bob's who wants to send a message to Mary but without Susie intercepting it.
        • by dpilot (134227)

          No, it's not Mary and Susie you're worried about.

          Bob and Alice want to exchange information without Carol and Ted pulling an MiTM attack on them. That's why it was referred to back in the 60's as "Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice" http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0064100/ [imdb.com]
          Carol and Ted are in the middle, and would prefer not to have direct, confidential exchange between Bob and Alice.

          Whooooooooosh!!

    • Wow! I never realized the first astronauts were so fat.
  • I thought that said "Aluminium Rice Rocket", and I wondered why it was posted to /.
    • by John Hasler (414242) on Monday November 30, 2009 @10:40AM (#30270366) Homepage

      Hmm. One _could_ make solid fuel with rice flour and potassium chlorate or a similar oxidizer...

      • by Dunbal (464142) on Monday November 30, 2009 @11:20AM (#30270748)

        Hmm. One _could_ make solid fuel with rice flour and potassium chlorate or a similar oxidizer...

              Hell, you can turn a grain silo into a rocket with just one match...

      • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

        by arielCo (995647)

        Hmm. One _could_ make solid fuel with rice flour and potassium chlorate or a similar oxidizer...

        Wow, I knew McGyver posted under an alias on /. ;)

        • You mean you never made potassium chlorate and sugar rockets? Just fill an empty CO2 cartridge with the mixture and ignite it with a hot wire. Hint: don't mix the fuel with or in anything rusty.

          • by arielCo (995647)
            Nope, but now I get the idea; it's basically the same as black powder: carbon/sugar/starch plus oxidizer. Pray tell, what happens exactly with the metal oxide? Will the mixture ignite on contact?
            • Burning Iron Oxide+Reactive= Thermite. Gets you a nice flame at around the boiling point of the reactive and some nasty sunburn if that temperature point is hot enough.
              • by arielCo (995647)

                Doh! You're right, only that the fuel would not be Al or Mg but sugar; I wonder if it works as well like that.

                Hey, that was in a McGyver episode! - early seasons. He fashions a thermal lance with rust from a paint can and aluminium filings ;)

              • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

                by John Hasler (414242)

                > Burning Iron Oxide+Reactive= Thermite.

                No. Iron oxide+aluminum=thermite. Rust catalyzes the reaction between potassium chlorate and sugar. Mix your fuel in a rusty container and it may ignite while you are mixing it.

                A glass container is a good choice, but wash it when you are finished. We once mixed fuel in an ashtray and then failed to clean it...

    • Hayabusa runs Linux?
  • by confused one (671304) on Monday November 30, 2009 @10:36AM (#30270330)
    MIT Technology Review is a little late here. This was covered by numerous sources back in October. Surprisingly, I can't find it in the /. archives; so, it may not be a dupe.
  • "Enhance"? (Score:3, Informative)

    by John Hasler (414242) on Monday November 30, 2009 @10:38AM (#30270338) Homepage

    > The oxygen and hydrogen in water molecules enhance the combustion of the
    > aluminum.

    "Enhance"? Um, the water _is_ the oxidizer.

  • ... propulsion?
  • by Azarael (896715) on Monday November 30, 2009 @10:54AM (#30270492) Homepage

    For a neat visual presentation of the physics they're relying on, Mythbusters did an experiment on the explosive power of thermite powder and water vapor http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BnHR4cMXiyM [youtube.com].

  • Isn't ice just the frozen liquid. Therefore, don't they just have to keep the aluminum from melting? Should be pretty easy, with the melting point around 1200F. I think you can buy pretty good frozen aluminum (renolds wrap?).

    • by Amouth (879122)

      the water acts as a stable oxidizer - freezing it makes it into more of a manageable past than a liquid

    • Note the hyphen which can be used as a compound modifier. It's Aluminum-Ice fuel, as in, Aluminum and Ice.

      Not as in crystallized solid Aluminum.
  • by OzPeter (195038) on Monday November 30, 2009 @11:04AM (#30270596)

    that highlight the safety instructions I've had at Aluminium plants. You never, ever, ever drop anything like used aluminium cans into the feed that is headed for melt shop as any bit of liquid still in the can will cause a rather powerful explosion

    • by mangu (126918) on Monday November 30, 2009 @03:35PM (#30274220)

      You never, ever, ever drop anything like used aluminium cans into the feed that is headed for melt shop as any bit of liquid still in the can will cause a rather powerful explosion

      It's also a known rule that you use sand, never water, to extinguish a fire where molten aluminum is present.

      However, the biggest danger from dropping aluminum cans in the melt is from the steam expansion, not from burning aluminum. Having *any* humidity at all where molten metal runs, any metal, not just aluminum, will produce large quantities of steam, which will expand explosively throwing molten metal all around.

      I know this from personal experience, when I was about twelve years old I was burned while melting lead to make fishing weights. I dropped the mold in water to cool it and the next time I poured metal in it I got a spray of molten lead right in my face. Lucky me, none of it hit my eyes.

      • Having *any* humidity at all where molten metal runs, any metal, not just aluminum, will produce large quantities of steam, which will expand explosively throwing molten metal all around.

        Yes, it is easy to see this if you pour water onto molten mercury, or vice versa.

    • In the safety lecture for visitors to an aluminium smelter, I was told of the results of one person's discarding an allegedly empty disposable cigarette lighter in one of the pots. There were fatalities.
    • But isn't that mainly because the water will flash into vapor and blow the liquid metal around?

  • There is (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Dunbal (464142) on Monday November 30, 2009 @11:16AM (#30270704)

    A better article on the engine here [inventube.com].

          However I don't get how TFA considers this fuel as "environmentally friendly". Firstly one of the byproducts is aluminum hydroxide which, apart from helping us with our stomach ulcers, may be linked to brain disease - but I don't really care about that - the amount generated from a few rocket launches won't kill us all. But I argue that aluminum is not a naturally occurring substance - it has to be manufactured, and aluminum manufacture is the most energy intensive process around. So don't come to me with "environmentally friendly rocket fuel" when god knows how many tonnes of CO2 were dumped in the atmosphere to make the energy to refine that bauxite.

          Still, if it works, it's better than "other" fuels that have extreme storage or environmental implications. Good for them.

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by ceoyoyo (59147)

      Rocket fuel = concentrated energy.

      However you get that energy, you can have rocket fuels that are nasty pollutants or rocket fuels that are not, and rocket fuels that produce exhaust that is a nasty pollutant or not. Hydrogen + oxygen = water is probably the best, but some of the solid fuel rockets are nasty. Both the reactants and the products are a little more toxic than "may be linked to brain disease [but we drink it anyway]."

      Besides, most aluminum plants are located near some cheap source of energy s

      • by Dunbal (464142)

        Oh I acknowledge that. All rocket fuels are expensive to make, store and ship. This one looks reasonably (and relatively) cheap. However the "environmentally friendly" comment in TFA is what I didn't like. It's like saying "environmentally friendly cigarettes". Rocket fuel (of any type) does not qualify for the "environmentally friendly" label, even if this is the "friendliest" one...

        • by ceoyoyo (59147)

          By that argument you could say that no human activity is environmentally friendly.

          Take the rocket fuel H2 + O2 = H20. The reactants and products all exist in the environment and the reaction itself occurs within the cells of almost every living thing on the planet (if not all living things). Yet you say it's not environmentally friendly? Why not? Because of the energy needed to produce the H2 and O2 in the first place? The term "environmentally friendly" becomes absolutely meaningless if you interpret

          • by Gilmoure (18428)

            So... if we got rid of all the people, the Earth would be a nice place to raise a family?

        • by Urkki (668283)

          Oh I acknowledge that. All rocket fuels are expensive to make, store and ship. This one looks reasonably (and relatively) cheap. However the "environmentally friendly" comment in TFA is what I didn't like. It's like saying "environmentally friendly cigarettes". Rocket fuel (of any type) does not qualify for the "environmentally friendly" label, even if this is the "friendliest" one...

          That's what you get with life. Just look at Mars. Perfectly nice and beautiful environment. Compare to Earth: covered with various forms of nasty organic slime, hardly any unpolluted barren surface anywhere. And don't get me started with Earth's atmosphere, now that's a particularly nasty mix, full of poisons such as O2 and even O3, all released by life.

          And now rocket fuels. This does not bode well for our solar system!

    • by Bigjeff5 (1143585)

      But I argue that aluminum is not a naturally occurring substance...

      Then I'd argue you're a moron. Aluminum is what is commonly known as a basic element. It's not a compound of anything, it isn't created in a lab, it's dug up out of the earth.

      Now, I'll agree with your point that getting it into a useable form requires processing, but so do algae pellets, bio fuel, orange juice and that nice, tasty steak. You seem to be implying that there is no such thing as a naturally occurring substance, which is obviously false.

      Furthermore, aluminum is extremely recyclable, and can b

      • by mea37 (1201159)

        Before I start on this, I do want to acknowledge that in my book labels like "environmentally friendly" are by nature relative, and if this is less harmful than the current alternatives that do the same thing then I don't have a problem with the label myself. But I do have a problem with the parent post...

        "Then I'd argue you're a moron. Aluminum is what is commonly known as a basic element. It's not a compound of anything, it isn't created in a lab, it's dug up out of the earth."

        I, in turn, will argue that

        • (And no, I do not consider a cow a steak. If you place one on your plate you will quickly understand why.)

          I've seen wolves that would disagree with you. Of course they didn't use plates... is that the critical difference?

      • by Dunbal (464142)

        Then I'd argue you're a moron. Aluminum is what is commonly known as a basic element. It's not a compound of anything, it isn't created in a lab, it's dug up out of the earth. (emphasis mine)

        As pure aluminum, right? In fact, you can just pull Reynold's Wrap right out of the ground, can't you? It's not found as something called bauxite, which is actually aluminum hydroxide AL(OH)3. You know, just by adding a few OH groups, I can magically turn a thing into something else with COMPLETEL

    • by bperkins (12056)

      > aluminum hydroxide which, apart from helping us with our stomach ulcers, may be linked to brain disease

      Are you talking the Alzheimer's link? I thought that that was found to be a non causal link quite some time ago.

      Here's a link that pretty much flat out says it's not an issue:
      http://www.alz.org/alzheimers_disease_myths_about_alzheimers.asp [alz.org]

      There are a lot of websites that talk about it as being a problem, but they all seem a little woo woo.

    • Aluminium is incredibly wasteful. producing it from raw materials is expensive and using recycled sources as fuel effectively reduces the overall efficiency of the aluminium economy.

      This is why I suggest copper. My chemistry is too rusty to know the best stuff to replace the ice, but good enough to know that copper would make for much greener emissions.

    • There is a really big aluminum smelter a few hundred miles from me. Pretty much 0 tonnes of CO2 were dumped into the atmosphere to make the energy to refine the bauxite. It does use a huge amount of electricity which is generated nearby from hydroelectric facilities built specifically for that purpose. Although now they are finding it more profitable to just sell the electricity than to make the aluminum and sell that.
  • by sabre86 (730704) on Monday November 30, 2009 @11:48AM (#30271092)
    It looks like the exhaust products should include a fair amount of hydrogen gas. If so, you could add a liquid oxygen tank, inject LOX upstream of the nozzle and burn the hydrogen that's freed up to produce even more thrust, and more importantly, a higher specific impulse. You might even be able to use it to create bimodal rockets that use the ALICE fuel for high thrust early in a launch and switch to pure H2/O2 later for the higher efficiency.
    • > If so, you could add a liquid oxygen tank, inject LOX upstream of the nozzle
      > and burn the hydrogen that's freed up to produce even more thrust, and more
      > importantly, a higher specific impulse.

      True, but that gives you an engine with all the complexity of liquid fuel and all the limitations of solid.

      • by sabre86 (730704)
        Yeah, that's definitely a risk. My hope is that might be lighter than two dedicated engines. Also, you might be able to run the ALICE fuel as a suspension and treat it as liquid fuel. Three pumps and one nozzle could be a big win on the lightness front. I admit the complexity risk is offputting, though. Also, you might want to use the quote tags when quoting. (You might not, it's up to you.)
        • > Also, you might want to use the quote tags when quoting.

          I know how to write html. I choose not to do so here.

    • by Guppy (12314)

      Or perhaps we could add some peroxides to the ice, to adjust the stoichiometry of the fuel mix? Or maybe add a turbopump to inject some air into the combustion chamber, during the atmospheric portion of the flight?

      • > Or perhaps we could add some peroxides to the ice...

        Interesting idea, but I think stability would be a problem.

    • Yes, you get a higher specific impulse and thrust that way... But you also increase the weight and complexity of your vehicle, and add considerable ground handling and operational problems and costs. (It's expensive to manufacture and handle Oxygen Clean hardware, even more so when you're handling cryogenic oxygen.)

  • Wish those pesky scientists had thought of this earlier, we could have retired the B52s and had mach 3 bombers decades ago.

  • Nano-scale aluminum can have quite useful and interesting applications. See for example here [bentham-open.org].
  • by DynaSoar (714234) on Monday November 30, 2009 @01:31PM (#30272454) Journal

    http://www.wickmanspacecraft.com/wspcnews.html [wickmanspacecraft.com]

    John Wickman has been working on aluminum/oxidizer (LOX, not ice) motors since the 80s. His are intended to run on lunar soil.

    Also in the can, a jet engine that runs on Martian atmosphere. Development from Oberth's original ammonium nitrate motors as an alternative to ammonium perchlorate.

    Now working on NASA's SHARP re-entry vehicle. He's also one of the few pros that teach his craft at the amateur level and consult out to rocketers who want to carry out major projects.

    "Rocket scientist" used to be a compliment. That fell away as they numbered into the tens of thousands and each did a tiny piece of engineering. This guy earns that title all over again.

  • Is it transparent?
  • How's a telekinetic, zombie-ass kicking clone going to help you get into orbit?
  • by Baldrson (78598) * on Monday November 30, 2009 @04:50PM (#30275310) Homepage Journal
    Assuming a 2 to 3 Al to H2O molar ratio, it looks like the exhaust velocity is about 900 m/s so the Isp is about 90s.

    If that's right, that sucks compared to normal mixtures.

    Of course, if you're lifting off the moon or asteroids, it may be ok.  Mars?  Probably not.

    Computing case 1
    Fixed enthalpy-pressure equilibrium - adiabatic flame temperature

    Propellant composition
    Code  Name                                mol    Mass (g)  Composition
    34    ALUMINUM (PURE CRYSTALINE)          2.0000 53.9631   1AL
    976   WATER                               3.0000 54.0458   2H  1O
    Density :  1.458 g/cm^3
    3 different elements
    AL H  O
    Total mass:  108.008918 g
    Enthalpy  : -7944.26 kJ/kg

    24 possible gazeous species
    8 possible condensed species

                           CHAMBER
    Pressure (atm)   :     340.230
    Temperature (K)  :    3166.569
    H (kJ/kg)        :   -7944.256
    U (kJ/kg)        :   -8685.762
    G (kJ/kg)        :  -33443.801
    S (kJ/(kg)(K)    :       8.053
    M (g/mol)        :      35.507
    (dLnV/dLnP)t     :    -1.00584
    (dLnV/dLnT)p     :     1.13099
    Cp (kJ/(kg)(K))  :     3.30500
    Cv (kJ/(kg)(K))  :     3.00720
    Cp/Cv            :     1.09903
    Gamma            :     1.09264
    Vson (m/s)       :   900.11114

    Molar fractions

    AL                   6.0290e-004
    ALH                  9.2486e-004
    ALH2                 2.8353e-005
    ALH3                 2.1470e-005
    ALO                  2.4478e-005
    ALOH                 5.6133e-003
    AL(OH)2              3.4527e-005
    AL(OH)3              3.1024e-006
    AL2                  1.4157e-006
    AL2O                 1.3669e-003
    AL2O2                1.1545e-005
    H                    1.0276e-002
    HALO                 2.7342e-006
    HALO2                3.5370e-007
    H2                   7.2954e-001
    H2O                  7.8723e-003
    O                    3.5048e-007
    OH                   4.1466e-005
    Condensed species
    AL2O3(L)             2.4364e-001
    • by teridon (139550)
      In the August AIAA paper (2009-4877), the diameter of the test chamber greatly influenced the Isp and exhaust velocity. They tested three diameters -- 0.75 in, 1.5 in, and 3 in.

      Values below are averages (except the peak row)

      motor size
      0.5" 1.5" 3.0"
      exhaust velocity (
  • C'mon, Slashdot, this is rocket science. You shouldn't need help figuring this out on your own.

    I'll come out and say it: this is a stupid rocket. As Baldrson points out above, its "specific impulse" (the most important measure of a rocket fuel's usefulness) is less than a quarter that of rocket fuels currently in existence.

    Aluminum is readily available on the moon, but not as big old bricks of elemental aluminum lying around. You need to *make* it by electrolyzing rock. (Don't panic, this is how we make

    • > Standard, classic, perfect rocket fuel.

      Which requires "standard", "classic" _perfect_ cryogenic pumps, valves, fuel lines, regeneratively-cooled combustion chambers...

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