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Unique technology uses alcohol as rocket fuel

16 February 2017

The German Aerospace Centre (DLR) and the Brazilian aerospace agency AEB developed a rocket that is fueled with oxygen and alcohol.

Injector heads at the burn test (Credit: DLR)

The results of the first burn test series for the upper-stage engine of a future Brazilian small launch vehicle demonstrate this. The tests with two newly designed injection heads were successfully completed in December 2016 within the framework of a German-Brazilian partnership.

"In order to find the optimum technology for the propulsion of a future German-Brazilian rocket, two injection heads based on different concepts were developed in parallel," says Lysan Pfützenreuter, project manager at the DLR Space Administration. "In this first series, we have achieved all our major test objectives. A total of 42 ignitions were successfully carried out over a period of 20 days. During these tests, we were able to closely analyse, among other things, the ignition behaviour and stability of the system during ignition and start-up of the thrust chamber. From this we have gained important insights for further engine development."

The tests took place at the P8 test facility of the DLR Institute of Space Propulsion at the Lampoldshausen site between July and December 2016. Specifically, the two injection heads differ in how the fuel is sprayed into the combustion chamber and mixed. One system was developed by the Instituto de Aeronáutica e Espaço (IAE) in Brazil; the other developed and built in Germany by Airbus Safran Launchers as part of the SALSA project (system design of an alcohol LOX propulsion as a substitute for storable fuels).

'Green' propellant for better environmental compatibility

P8 test rig at the DLR Institute of Space Propulsion (Credit: DLR)

The injection head is destined to one day be at the core of the new L75 engine, which will propel Brazilian small launch vehicles in the future. What makes this unique is that the new technology makes it possible to use ethanol – ordinary alcohol – as fuel.  Ethanol, like methane, is one of the so-called 'green' fuels. These are becoming increasingly important as they are more environmentally friendly and have less adverse health effects than the hydrazine compounds generally used for space travel. In addition to these positive effects, these 'new' fuels can also significantly reduce the cost of space travel, since the cost for safe storage and handling of these substances is significantly lower than that for hydrazine. 

In Europe, how long hydrazine will continue to be approved as a fuel under the REACH regulation (Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals) is questionable. This European Union regulation has been controlling the authorisation and use of chemical substances since it came into force in 2007.

Thrust chamber tests with ethanol for orbital rockets only possible at Lampoldshausen

In Europe, there is only one facility for testing engine components for orbital rockets – i.e. rockets that can transport a payload into orbit – with ethanol fuel: the P8 test facility at the DLR site in Lampoldshausen. "The test facility had already been extended with a high-pressure ethanol supply in the spring of 2016. This means that another 'green' fuel is available on the P8 alongside the existing oxygen, hydrogen and methane fuels," says Jan Alting, SALSA project manager at Airbus Safran Launchers GmbH. "For Europe, the P8 covers almost the entire range of the current fuel combinations of interest for the technology development and thrust chamber testing for launchers."

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