How to Fuel Space Exploration with Less Environmental Impact

Pushing the current limitations of space exploration is a constant.

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How can we go farther and travel faster while we minimize and or eliminate the use of hazardous materials and produce less waste? These are the questions that have plagued the space exploration community. One Utah State University Professor, Dr. Whitemore, and a few of his students have tested a theory that may change how we fuel our journeys - with 3D printing.

Dr. Whitmore has developed and patented a 'green' thruster that could revolutionize the small spacecraft industry. Thrusters are used to position and maneuver spacecraft or satellites after they are boosted into orbit.  Instead of using the traditional and highly toxic hydrazine as rocket fuel; the team developed a unique 3D printed ABS. Whitmore discovered that 3D printing allowed them to “blend and compose certain printable plastics into material that contained advantageous properties of rocket fuels.” The ABS material, much like the Legos most of us played with as kids, is very similar to hydrocarbon and when heat pressure is present, it will combust.  The discovery lead Dr. Whitmore to develop a fuel that can be 3D printed, is lightweight, cheaper and safer than conventional liquid rocket fuel. 

 Professor Stephen A. Whitmore and graduate students Zac Lewis, Rob Stoddard and Marc Bulcher designed and built an experiment to test a new type of thruster.

Professor Stephen A. Whitmore and graduate students Zac Lewis, Rob Stoddard and Marc Bulcher designed and built an experiment to test a new type of thruster.

This past Sunday his experiment was put to the test.  NASA launched a rocket that included a payload of experiments from 4 Universities; USU was one of the universities selected. The rocket reached an altitude of 107 miles and flew in space for approximately 7 minutes.  When the rocket's mid-section fell away during flight, it was time to put the thrusters to the test in the vacuum of space. The thrusters were fired five times and resulted in successful testing.

Will hydrazine continue to be the go-to option for thruster fuel? Most likely, but now we know there is a less hazardous, cheaper, and versatile alternative made possible by 3D printing.