Flometrics to launch biodiesel-powered rocket

By Ryan C. Christiansen | January 15, 2009
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Web exclusive posted Jan. 21, 2009, at 10:33 a.m. CST

Carlsbad, Calif.-based Flometrics Inc., an aerospace, medical, and consumer products engineering company, plans to launch a biodiesel-powered unmanned rocket from the Mojave Desert in California later this winter. The company recently tested B100, obtained from a local retail fuel pump, in a RocketDyne LR-101 rocket engine and found the performance of biodiesel to be within 4 percent of RP-1 kerosene rocket fuel, the propellant that the rocket engine originally was designed for, according to Steve Harrington, chief executive officer of Flometrics.

"It worked pretty well," Harrington said. "We didn't have a chance to do any fancy testing," he said, but Flometrics did test the most important aspect of rocket fuel: fuel economy. "With rockets, most of the weight you're lifting when you're trying to get into orbit is the fuel," Harrington said, "and the biodiesel was about 4 percent lower than the RP-1 that the U.S. Air Force uses, and so it's pretty close." He said further testing could involve changing the oxygen-biodiesel mixture ratio during the burn. "Biodiesel has oxygen in it and normal kerosene doesn't," he said, "and so we might be able to get slightly better performance (from the biodiesel)."

Harrington said if biodiesel can prove to be a viable rocket fuel, "it might be attractive to people in the Air Force and NASA and so on…because it can be more dense than normal kerosene. If you can put more weight of fuel in a given-size tank, that's a good thing. (Even) if the specific impulse (of biodiesel) is slightly less than the kerosene-but if the density is higher-then it still might be a viable fuel." According to Wikipedia, specific impulse (Isp) is a way to describe the efficiency of rocket and jet engines, representing the impulse (change in momentum) per unit of propellant. Harrington is interested to know which feedstocks produce the densest biodiesel, which would help to determine the most efficient feedstock for producing biodiesel rocket fuel.

"And the nice thing about [biodiesel] is that it's renewable," Harrington said. "There are people who are thinking about trying to grow things on Mars and the whole idea is that if you could have a fuel that you could grow, that would be something useful."

The rocket engine test burn lasted approximately six seconds and consumed approximately three gallons of biodiesel, Harrington said, "just long enough to see what the performance was and then we shut it down." He said the planned rocket launch will consume a similar amount of biodiesel to carry the rocket-which is 20 feet tall, one foot in diameter, and 150 pounds-to 23,000 feet. The engine is expected to run out of fuel at 10,000 feet.

Launching a rocket using biodiesel merges two areas of development for Flometrics, Harrington said. "It just so happens that we do consulting for the biofuels industry and the aerospace industry," he said. The launch is tentatively scheduled for Feb. 7, "but we have to order parachutes and get them installed," he said. "We're not on too tight of a schedule."

Harrington is also a coordinator for the San Diego State University Rocket Project, which helps students to design, build, and fly rockets within two or three semesters.
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