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From deep fryer to deep space: Can biodiesel fuel spaceflights?

The fields of space and climate science are growing ever more closely entwined: Japan launched a new satellite to monitor greenhouse gases late last week, and NASA is set to launch its own Orbiting Carbon Observatory next month. But what about all the nasty fumes and gases spewed by the boosters needed to shoot those climate watchdogs into orbit?

A California company has a solution to shrink the ecological footprint of space exploration, but it remains to be seen whether it can or will be applied to real spaceflight: biodiesel-powered rockets. Flometrics, based in Carlsbad, Calif., earlier this month conducted a ground rocket-engine test of biodiesel (the "same stuff people put in their cars," according to company founder Steve Harrington) alongside RP-1, a standard rocket-grade kerosene fuel, and found them of almost equal fortitude. (The biodiesel delivered about 3 percent less thrust than the RP-1, according to Flometrics.) Biodiesel, a liquid fuel derived from vegetable oil or animal fat, has already been used to power a cross-country jet flight.

The Flometrics test had a few limitations that make large-scale adoption of biodiesel by space agencies appear somewhat remote—the fuel tank for the test rocket was fashioned from a fire extinguisher, limiting the amount of initial fuel pressure, and the test ran for only a few seconds. In addition, Flometrics tested the biofuel in a Rocketdyne LR-101, a relatively small engine often employed for steering.

Nevertheless, Harrington says the company is preparing to fit a rocket with parachutes and other systems that will allow for an actual test launch in the coming weeks.

Photo of biodiesel static test courtesy of Flometrics

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