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Space Transportation Science

New Molecule Could Lead To Better Rocket Fuel 121

MithrandirAgain writes "Trinitramid is the name of the new molecule that may be a component in future rocket fuel. This fuel could be 20 to 30 percent more efficient in comparison with the best rocket fuels available today, according to researchers (abstract). The discovery was made at the Royal Institute of Technology (KTH) in Sweden. 'A rule of thumb is that for every ten-percent increase in efficiency for rocket fuel, the payload of the rocket can double. What's more, the molecule consists only of nitrogen and oxygen, which would make the rocket fuel environmentally friendly. This is more than can be said of today's solid rocket fuels, which entail the emission of the equivalent of 550 tons of concentrated hydrochloric acid for each launch of the space shuttle,' says Tore Brinck, professor of physical chemistry at KTH."
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New Molecule Could Lead To Better Rocket Fuel

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  • A long shot (Score:4, Interesting)

    by hankwang ( 413283 ) * on Friday December 24, 2010 @11:09AM (#34659898) Homepage
    They synthesized something enough to see it in a mass spectrometer. Note that mass spectrometers need less than a nanomol or so (0.1 micrograms), and the compound was probably in a solution, mixed with a lot of other compounds.

    Then it is being speculated that (a) the synthesis can be scaled up to produce a few hundred tonnes in a cost-effective way, (b) the stuff is stable enough to not decompose explosively if you shake it too hard, and (c) can be burnt in a controlled way to make it suitable as a rocket fuel.

    A long shot. Unfortunately, it seems to be necessary nowadays to speculate about far-fetched applications in fundamental research, since the fact that a new compound consisting of just 4 nitrogen and 6 oxygen atoms is synthesized that has never been seen before, is not considered to be interesting by itself.

  • by damburger ( 981828 ) on Friday December 24, 2010 @11:27AM (#34660026)

    By the rocket equation, mass fraction is determined by velocity and exhaust velocity is driven two things; the mass of the molecules being put out and the pressure/temperature of the combustion chamber. The latter is limited, as once you get to about 100 atmospheres and 3000K you start to run out of materials to make the combustion chamber out of. Thus, molecule mass is the real driving factor - which is why despite the truly horrific engineering problems it entails, liquid hydrogen is a highly valued rocket fuel.

    In fact, because molecular mass is so important, H2/O2 rockets are run fuel rich, sacrificing some combustion efficiency in order to leave some unburned hydrogen in the exhaust and reduce its average molecular mass.

    So it doesn't matter how much energy you can get out of this new compound. It will only spit out oxygen, nitrogen and nitrous oxides, all far more massive than the hydrogen and water vapour you get from rockets in use at the moment. Sure, breaking down this molecule in optimal conditions might yield enough energy that the reaction products would have more velocity than the exhaust of a H2/O2 rocket, but there is a reason chemists don't build rockets; these researchers aren't taking into account the kind of unobtanium combustion chamber walls you would need to utilise such an inferno.

  • Re:Solid rockets (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Hoi Polloi ( 522990 ) on Friday December 24, 2010 @11:33AM (#34660074) Journal

    A quick google search and voilà!

    More advanced solid rocket motors can not only be throttled but also be extinguished and then re-ignited by controlling the nozzle geometry or through the use of vent ports.

  • Re:Redeeculous (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Muad'Dave ( 255648 ) on Friday December 24, 2010 @12:29PM (#34660428) Homepage

    (2) They are highly toxic, even more toxic than the widely-used hydrazines, which can kill you in several interesting ways.

    (3) They're so unstable, you have to keep them under impossible conditions

    That reminds me of a hazmat situation [tobaccodocuments.org] involving pentaborane [wikipedia.org] that happened in the 80's near me. One of my best friends as exposed, died and was resuscitated several times. He suffered organ damage and lost many of his early memories.

    See also: http://www.scribd.com/doc/15062569/Pentaborane-Taming-the-Dragonpdf [scribd.com]

  • by Giant Electronic Bra ( 1229876 ) on Friday December 24, 2010 @01:15PM (#34660686)

    Yeah, basically. However SRMs are incredibly reliable in terms of lighting off. They are crap in many other respects, but I can't think of an instance where a vehicle launched from a pad like the shuttle had an ignition failure in an SRB.

    Basically the drill is at T - 6 the SSMEs start. At that point it is still possible to abort. Once all 3 SSMEs are running at full power the clock hits 0, something like 6 pyro igniters in each SRM fires them up, and then maybe 500ms later the hold down bolts blow.

    As for range safety, the RSO is basically 'finger on button' during launch. It probably would take a half a second or something to flip up the cap and push the button. There's no automatic way, or accidental way those can go off. The self destruct basically blows a couple holes in the top of the SRM, at which point it will go completely to pieces on its own. Interestingly I actually worked on the box responsible for this stuff. It is pretty impressive. Made out of a 12"x12" brick of aluminum, hogged out to form a case, with some boards mounted in slots in the aluminum, and then the whole thing is potted full of engineering epoxy. It is basically the one 100.00000% reliability subsystem on the whole stack. The spec is basically "this cannot fail, period". Designing it and verifying it met spec was a pretty interesting project.

  • by EccentricAnomaly ( 451326 ) on Friday December 24, 2010 @01:41PM (#34660836) Homepage

    Most modern solid-fuel rockets use pretty much the same fuel as the shuttle SRBs. It's cheap, stable and reliable but it does produce a lot of goop and the ISP could be better. If this stuff is stable it might make an excellent replacement for ammonium perchlorate oxidizer.

    Shuttle SRBs are more expensive and less reliable than equivalent liquid boosters. This is the main reason why SpaceX is only using liquid engines in the Falcon-9. ULA uses solid boosters for extra thrust on the Atlas V, but these solids are cheaper and more reliable than Shuttle SRBs. In addition, based on recent conference papers, I think they want to get away from solids in their next generation of rockets.

    So why is NASA planning on using boosters based on the lower performing, more expensive, and less reliable Shuttle SRBs in their new Heavy lift rocket? This is because the Utah Congressional delegation is lobbying heavily for the company that makes the SRBs. The Utah senators inserted text into the continuing resolution that NASA is currently operating under that they claim prevents NASA from even doing trade studies to consider any alternatives to using the Shuttle SRBs.

    Solids might have made sense in the 60s, but with current technology they are no longer needed except in a few specialized applications for robotic planetary exploration spacecraft.

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