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By Samuel R. Avro on Feb 19, 2009 with no responses

Rocket Engine Used to Test Biofuel Formulas

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By John Nestler

Space shuttle Discovery is silhouetted against the dawn's early light as it makes the slow 3.4-mile journey to Launch Pad 39A at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Photo credit: NASA/Troy Cryder

Biofuels are becoming increasingly mainstream – powering airplanes, boats, even cars, and the rest of the U.S. aerospace industry isn’t ignoring it either.

Surprising results from a biodiesel powered rocket test point to a promising future where NASA may use renewable fuels to power their rockets.

Flometrics, a firm based in California concluded that powering an engine with biodiesel is almost as powerful or equally as powerful as powering an engine with normal kerosene based rocket fuel. “We found it was very comparable,” said company chief executive Steve Harrington. Harrington also has hope that with further testing the biodiesel formulas can be improved to increase engine performance. “More testing at various mixture ratios would show if the (engine performance) difference is less at other ratios,” he later wrote in a blog post.

Flometrics conducted the tests with a Rocketdyne LR-101 engine. First the engine was filled with a traditional rocket fuel mix and liquid oxygen. The engine was then fired for around 6 seconds, and the engine was allowed to stabilize to normal pressure settings. Next, the engineers filled the rocket with biodiesel in the tank, and compared the thrust levels from each test. It turns out that the biodiesel only caused a 4% decrease in rocket thrust. Although 4% is still quite a bit of lost power, it is regained since biodiesel is denser than traditional rocket fuels which means more fuel can be pumped into the same space.

In the past scientists have also speculated that biofuels may burn more cleanly than other kerosene based fuels due to their organic nature. Flometrics is on track for a planned launch later this year when they hope to truly demonstrate the power of these renewable fuels. Harrington hasn’t been quiet about the advantages of biofuel either as he recently pointed out that biofuels could power expeditions to and from Mars, if we ever get there. Here is what he was quoted as saying, “And the nice thing about [biodiesel] is that it’s renewable,” Harrington said. “There are people who are thinking about trying to grow things on Mars and the whole idea is that if you could have a fuel that you could grow, that would be something useful.”

Hopefully after a few more developments like this NASA will be going “green” sometime, as their space shuttle launches alone use massive amounts of fuel and other resources. People may laugh when they figure out that NASA’s fuel could technically come right from the McDonald’s deep fryers, maybe our rockets in 10 years will have McDonald’s ads on them. All that aside it’s good that Flometrics is pushing forward this new view on biofuels, and Laurence Fineberg, a rocket propulsion engineer with NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida may have said it best, “It’s kind of the sexy thing to do right now.”

Note: This article was republished with permission from the original author on Space Marauder. If you enjoyed this post, you can read more like it on the Space Marauder blog which covers interesting space related news.