A chemical found in EV batteries could also provide clean rocket fuel

Space travel might get a carbon-free fuel update.
Derya Ozdemir
Missile launch at night.Elen11/iStock

A team of researchers from the University of California, Riverside, has discovered that ammonia borane, a chemical currently used to store hydrogen in fuel cells that power electric vehicles, might also provide us with clean fuel to launch rockets and satellites.

This is the first time researchers have proved that, given the appropriate conditions, ammonia borane could be used to power rockets as well as electric vehicles.

According to the study, this chemical also has various advantages over other types of rocket fuels, including greater energy, reduced costs, and no need for frozen storage. This is crucial as, with more and more rockets launching into the sky, the impact of rocket emissions is now starting to become a much more disputable topic. 

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Taking it from the streets to the stratosphere

Depending on the fuel used, rocket launches that carry us to the moon and beyond can actually shoot massive amounts of soot into the upper layers of the atmosphere. In fact, the most often utilized rocket fuels are hydrocarbon-based and are known to have a number of detrimental environmental effects. For example, they can contaminate the soil, cause cancer, and lead to the emergence of acid rains, ozone holes, and greenhouse gases like CO2.

Ammonia borane, on the other hand, is currently utilized to store hydrogen in fuel cells that power electric vehicles, and the researchers have found that a combination of boron-hydrogen can provide enough energy to launch rockets.

In contrast to the most commonly used rocket fuels, ammonia borane emits the benign compounds boron oxide and wateronce when burned, and according to the researchers, which have published the study in The Journal of Physical Chemistry C, it's "much less harmful" to the environment.

Driving technology enables cleaner rocket fuel

In the study, the researchers developed very small, nanoscale particles of ammonium borane. When compared to hydrocarbon fuels, ammonia borane releases more energy, which could result in cost savings because less of it is needed to power the same trip. The fuel is stable at room temperature and heat resistant. Furthermore, in extremely humid situations, it could degrade over the course of a month.

The researchers stated that they've figured out the basic chemistry that powers this fuel and oxidizer combination, and they're excited to see how it performs on a larger scale. They are also investigating how ammonium borane particles of various sizes age in different circumstances, as well as researching techniques for enclosing fuel particles in a protective covering to improve their stability in damp conditions.

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