NASA Going Green With New Fuel

A new type of fuel is in the works for NASA rockets. While the agency has always been determined to send humans into space, such feats may now get a little bit greener.

Since the 1970s, spacecraft have relied on a type of fuel called hydrazine. Scientists are familiar with the power of hydrazine, which is highly flammable and emits large amounts of heat. But the fuel is also toxic and difficult to handle and transport.

In comes energetic ionic liquid, or EIL, a type of fuel developed by the Air Force Office of Scientific Research. The fuel is safer, more efficient and healthier for the environment. Ionic liquids are safer and easier to handle because their molecules have either a positive or negative charge, binding them together more tightly and stabilizing the liquid.

Until now, however, ionic liquids weren't all that energetic and didn't make a lot of energy when combusted. That was until Tom Hawkins of the Air Force's Rocket Propulsion Division saw potential in ionic liquids. The new propellant is called AF-M315E and has the same appealing characteristics of an EIL. The fuel is considered "green" because when combusted it emits nontoxic gasses like hydrogen, water vapor and carbon dioxide.

The problem with the fuel, however, is that it burns so hot that it would damage engines currently in use by spacecraft.

"Now we need better materials (for engines) that can handle the temperatures generated," Michael Berman, a program manager at the Arlington, Va., Air Force Office of Scientific Research, said.

Ball Aerospace and Technologies Corp. has been tasked with making an engine that can use the fuel. An initial test flight is scheduled for 2015. If it works, humans could be traveling to Mars and beyond with a new form of green energy.

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