Biodiesel Rocket Failure Proves Fuel’s Worth

John Davis

You wouldn’t normally think that a flop would be a great opportunity, but the recent failure of a biodiesel-powered rocket actually shows that the green fuel could end up being a great asset for space travelers.

This article from Biodiesel Magazine
says a mechanical failure during the March 7th test-launch of the Flometrics rocket caused some biodiesel to flow into the liquid oxygen system, and, well, you saw the result in the video above. But the failure showed that biodiesel would not cause a more deadly pool fire for a manned mission:

“We got a big puff of flame out of the nozzle, but no significant thrust,” [Steve Harrington, chief executive officer of Carlsbad, Calif.-based aerospace engineering company Flometrics Inc.] said. “The rocket didn’t go anywhere.” But what happened next was a surprise. “We ran into a problem, but then we discovered this advantage of biodiesel that we hadn’t expected. This type of failure often causes a serious fire when you use kerosene: you get a pool fire underneath the rocket and it just kind of barbeques the fins, and so on. But this time the fire was minimal. The biodiesel just went right out and the rocket did not even get scorched.”

According to NASA, the RP-1 kerosene-based rocket fuel that Flometrics used to power its RocketDyne LR-101 rocket engine has a minimum flash point of 82 degrees Fahrenheit (28 degrees Celsius). The National Biodiesel Board said the flash point of biodiesel can range from 200 to 300 degrees Fahrenheit (93 and 149 degrees Celsius). By comparison, the flash point of petroleum diesel is 140 degrees Fahrenheit (60 degrees Celsius), the NBB said.

“The biodiesel showed a definite advantage compared to the standard fuel in that it wouldn’t sustain itself in a pool fire,” Harrington said. “This may be a reason to use it for manned missions, to keep the chances of catastrophic fire lower.”

Company officials say they’ll try to launch the 20-foot tall, 150-pound round again on March 21st. Hopefully, they won’t have to have another failure to learn even more.