Can Biofuels Make Space Flight Greener? UK space startups reveal plans for cleaner rocket launches

Rocket launches can inject large amounts of soot into the upper layers of Earth’s atmosphere, depending on its fuel, possibly contributing to climate change. A couple of British rocket startups now claim that their rocket technology can reduce the environmental footprint of spaceflight by switching to renewable fuel.

Both startups plan to launch their rockets from different spaceports located in the Scottish wilderness, and going green has been part of their talk from the beginning. While Edinburgh-based Skyrora plans to fly its rockets using rocket fuel made from non-recyclable plastics. Its Inverness-based counterpart Orbex is betting on biopropane, a natural gas obtained as a by-product during biodiesel production.

Last week, Orbex published a study by experts from the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom, which states that the Prime rocket, a biopropane micro-launcher from the company, will produce 86% less emissions than a fuel launcher. fossils of similar size. .

The comparison was made with launchers that burn RP-1, or Rocket Propellant 1, a refined form of aviation fuel kerosene. RP-1 is widely used by rocket builders around the world. SpaceX’s Falcon 9 uses this fuel in its two stages. Fossil fuel also powers Soyuz rockets, Russia’s workhorse, and the early stages of the Atlas V.

Related: Rising Space Tourism Could Affect Earth’s Climate In Unforeseen Ways, Scientists Worry

Most of the carbon dioxide emission reductions achieved by Orbex come from the negative carbon footprint of biofuel production rather than the launcher emitting considerably less, according to the report’s executive summary. The UK-based company supplying the biopropane, Calor, makes the fuel from a mixture of waste and “sustainably sourced materials,” according to Calor’s website.

However, most experts are not as concerned about carbon dioxide emissions from spaceflight, simply because there are not as many rocket launches currently. In an interview earlier this year, Martin Ross of the US Aerospace Corporation, a leading expert on the atmospheric effects of rocket launches, told that the space industry burns only about 1%. of fossil fuel consumed by aviation.

There’s another component of rocket exhaust that climate experts are concerned about: soot. Rockets inject large amounts into the otherwise pristine upper layers of Earth’s atmosphere, where it could unleash possibly far-reaching changes.

And here, technology like Orbex’s biopropane-fueled Prime rocket could make a difference. The University of Exeter study says the Prime vehicle, which is 62 feet (19 meters) long and designed to carry small payloads of up to 330 pounds. (150 kilograms) at low Earth orbit, it will emit much less soot than a similar micro-launcher using RP-1. The company added in a statement that Prime “almost completely eliminates” soot emissions.

Soot in the atmosphere can absorb heat and affect the temperature of the upper layers of the atmosphere: the mesosphere and the stratosphere. Orbex said in its statement that 120 rocket launches emit as much soot as the entire global aviation industry emits in a year.

Overall, a single Orbex rocket launch will generate a total of 15 tonnes (13.8 tonnes) of greenhouse gas emissions, which is equivalent to the annual carbon footprint of an average UK citizen, Orbex said at the release.

Related: In Photos: First Look Inside Orbex Scotland Rocket Factory

The British company Orbex's Prime microlauncher uses sustainably sourced biopropane that emits much less soot compared to RP-1 rocket fossil fuel.

The British company Orbex’s Prime microlauncher uses sustainably sourced biopropane that emits much less soot compared to RP-1 rocket fossil fuel. (Image credit: Orbex)

Orbex hopes to fly its reusable 3D printed Prime rocket for the first time next year from Space Hub Sutherland on the north coast of Scotland. The spaceport recently received planning permission after winning a court case against a billionaire landowner who questioned its environmental impact.

Orbex’s counterpart Skyrora has also not launched its Skyrora XL three-stage orbital rocket, but has conducted several successful test flights of its Skylark Micro suborbital missile, which reached an altitude of up to 17 miles (27 kilometers). In 2020, the company tested a small prototype of its engine, which runs on fuel made from non-recyclable plastics. According to the company’s website, the new fuel, called Ecosene, showed a 1-3% better energy profile compared to RP-1.

Derek Harris, CEO of Skyrora’s Ecosene division, told that Ecosene is much cheaper than the RP-1, at about $ 2 a gallon.

“The plastics that we are using are actually coming from waste disposal,” Harris said. “They even pay us to take it, so the raw material is a negative value.”

Harris said the company’s experiments show that the Ecosine-fueled rocket engine, which uses hydrogen peroxide as an oxidant to burn with the fuel, produces about 40% fewer emissions overall, including carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide. , soot and sulfur.

Harris said the company hopes to fly its prototype rocket in late 2022 from a spaceport in the Shetland Islands off the coast of Scotland.

Orbex and Skyrora aren’t the only ones looking for biofuels. In February this year, American startup bluShift Aerospace flew its first prototype Stardust 1.0 rocket, which uses proprietary solid biofuel made from agricultural waste. The test rocket reached less than a mile in altitude.

Follow Tereza Pultarova on Twitter @TerezaPultarova. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.

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