New molecule could make better rocket fuel

Posted by Emma Woollacott

Researchers hunting for a new rocket fuel believe they've found a new chemical that could improve efficiency by as much as 30 percent over the best rocket fuels available today.

The discovery could have big implications for the size and range of future spacecraft.

"A rule of thumb is that for every ten percent increase in efficiency for rocket fuel, the payload of the rocket can double. What’s more, the molecule consists only of nitrogen and oxygen, which would make the rocket fuel environmentally friendly," says Tore Brinck, professor of physical chemistry at the Royal Institute of Technology (KTH) in Sweden.

"This is more than can be said of today’s solid rocket fuels, which entail the emission of the equivalent of 550 tons of concentrated hydrochloric acid for each launch of the space shuttle."
 
Brinck and his team discovered a new molecule in the nitrogen oxide group - not something that happens every day, as he points out. It was while studying the breakdown of another compound using quantum chemistry computations, that the team realized that the new molecule could be stable.

Unusually, the molecule, dubbed trinitramid, contains only nitrogen and oxygen. Only eight such compounds were previously known, most of which were discovered back in the 18th century. It's the largest of the nitrogen oxides, with a molecular formula of N(NO2)3.

The scientists have successfully produced and analyzed the compound, but say there's a lot more work to be done. “It remains to be seen how stable the molecule is in a solid form,” says Brinck.