Swedish scientists have just discovered a new molecule—one that has the potential of boosting future rocket fuel efficiency by 20 to 30% compared to the best fuels around today.
The discovery was made at the Royal Institute of Technology in Sweden. The molecule is called trinitramid—chemical formula N(NO2)3. It's the largest nitrogen-oxygen molecule so far, and the first discovered since the 18th century. Trinitramid was found by accident when the Swedish team was using quantum chemical computations to study the breakdown of a different compound—as part of a search for better alternatives to today's solid rocket fuel.
They've now synthesized it, and are studying how stable the molecule is in everyday situations, but they've already discovered that as an additive to solid fuels it could be up to 30% more efficient than existing fuel. Rocket scientists have a rule of thumb that says a 10% increase in rocket fuel burning efficiency translates into a doubling of payload. This means that trinitramid could easily quadruple the payload that solid rockets can fire into space.
And since it is formed of such simple chemistry, the new molecule is kinder to the planet. The launch of the Space Shuttle dumps some 550 tons of hydrochloric acid into the atmosphere as its booster rockets burn. NASA has been investigating solid boosters for future rocket designs, including the stalled Ares 1-X system, and a more efficient solid fuel would be a boon for the burgeoning commercial space launch industry in the future.
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