NASA and the Air Force Office of Scientific Research (AFOSR) have successfully launched a nine-foot rocket to a height of 1,300ft using an environmentally-friendly propellant made from aluminum powder and water ice. The fuel, called ALICE, has the consistency of toothpaste with a high burn rate and achieved a maximum thrust of 650 pounds during this test.
ALICE propelled the craft over Purdue University's Scholer farms in Indiana earlier this month. The fuel is safer to handle to traditional fuels and can be fitted into molds before being cooled to –30C 24 hours before flight.
What has researchers excited is that they believe ALICE has the potential to replace some liquid or solid propellants, saying that when optimized, it could have a higher performance than conventional propellants. "A sustained collaborative research effort on the fundamentals of the combustion of nanoscale aluminum and water over the last few years led to the success of this flight," said Dr Steven F. Son, a research team member from Purdue. "ALICE can be improved with the addition of oxidizers and become a potential solid rocket propellant on Earth. Theoretically, ALICE can be manufactured in distant places like the moon or Mars, instead of being transported to distant locations at high cost."
"This collaboration has been an opportunity for graduate students to work on an environmentally-friendly propellant that can be used for flight on Earth and used in long distance space missions," said NASA Chief Engineer Mike Ryschkewitsch at NASA Headquarters in Washington. "These sorts of university-led experimental projects encourage a new generation of aerospace engineers to think outside of the box and look at new ways for NASA to meet our exploration goals."
"By funding this collaborative research with NASA, Purdue University and the Pennsylvania State University, AFOSR continues to promote basic research breakthroughs for the future of the Air Force," said Dr Brendan Godfrey, director of AFOSR.
NASA has, for some time, investigated the use of alternative fuels to replace the rocket fuel it currently uses to launch vehicles like the space shuttles.
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