New hybrid energy method could fuel the future of rockets, spacecraft for exploration

The nontraditional route shown to increase performance, burn rate.

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Graphene is a one-atom-thick sheet of carbon atoms arranged in a honeycomb-like pattern. Graphene is considered to be the world’s thinnest, strongest and most conductive material – to both electricity and heat.

Potential graphene applications include lightweight, thin, and flexible electric/photonics circuits, solar cells, and various medical, chemical and industrial processes. Now, Purdue scientists have discovered a new application for Graphene material.

Scientists found a new method to use graphene foams to power spacecraft and it is demonstrating strong results. Scientists demonstrated methods of creating and using compositions with solid fuel loaded on highly conductive, highly porous graphene foams for enhanced burn rates for the loaded solid fuel. They wanted to maximize the catalytic effect of metal oxide additives commonly used in solid propellant to enhance decomposition.

The graphene foam structures are also thermally stable, even at high temperatures, and can be reused. The developed compositions provide significantly improved burn rate and reusability.

A new propellant formulation method to use porous graphene foams to power spacecraft is being developed at Purdue University. (Image provided)
A new propellant formulation method to use porous graphene foams to power spacecraft is being developed at Purdue University. (Image provided)

Li Qiao, an associate professor of aeronautics and astronautics in Purdue’s College of Engineering said, “The graphene foam works well for solid propellants because it is super lightweight and highly porous, which means it has many holes in which scientists can pour fuel to help ignite a rocket launch.”

Due to the 3D, interconnected structure of this graphene foam, it allows more efficient transport pathway for heat to quickly spread and ignite the propellant.

Qiao said, “Our patented technology provides higher performance that is especially important when looking at areas such as hypersonics. Our tests showed a burn rate enhancement of nine times the normal, using functionalized graphene foam structures.”

“The Purdue graphene foam discovery has applications for energy conversion devices and missile defense systems, along with other areas where tailoring nanomaterials for specific outcomes may be useful.”

Qiao and the team have worked with the Purdue Research Foundation Office of Technology Commercialization to patent their technologies. They are looking for partners to license them.

Their work aligns with Purdue’s Giant Leaps celebration, acknowledging the university’s global advancements in space exploration as part of Purdue’s 150th anniversary. Space exploration, including propellants research, is one of the four themes of the yearlong celebration’s Ideas Festival, designed to showcase Purdue as an intellectual center solving real-world issues.