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US Navy’s biofuel powered Tomahawk missiles open door to sustainable rocket travel


Rocket fuel is in now way sustainable or green, but this innovation could change that narrative.


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Rockets aren’t green in any sense of the word, especially when it comes to rocket fuel – even though NASA and SpaceX have developed a new environmentally friendlier rocket fuel. But now, in a move that might one day help rockets everywhere become greener, like SpaceX’s that just lifted off carrying the first astronauts from US soil to the ISS for the first time in over a decade, one of the nation’s most prestigious national labs has developed a new fuel substitute for the same jet fuel that powers cruise missiles.


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Los Alamos National Labs has come up with a replacement fuel for JP-10 that uses a new type of biofuel using corn bran and other feedstocks instead of petroleum products. The result is a fuel that can be sourced directly from America’s most plentiful crop, bypassing foreign sources. And that is also much greener.

The Tomahawk missile is one of the most plentiful missiles in the US military arsenal. Developed in the 1970s, Tomahawk was one of the first low-altitude, radar-evading cruise missiles to enter service, and today 145 US Navy warships carry the missile daily as part of their standard missile loadout. Unlike other missiles that are powered by rocket motors, the Tomahawk and others like it are powered by turbine engines, in effect miniature, single-use airplane engines that trade speed for fuel efficiency and range. These engines, like their bigger, more powerful cousins run on JP-10 jet fuel.


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The US Navy sits on a stockpile of 4,000 Tomahawk missiles, each powered by a Williams International F415 turbofan engine, making JP-10 an important part of the fleet’s inventory. The result, LANL says, is a fuel that can be made entirely within the United States, using home-made agricultural products. Unlike petroleum-based JP-10, the feedstock-based method doesn’t require harsh acids to manufacture, making it more environmentally friendly to use as well.

The fuel is made with a by product of the process for making corn-based ethanol, making more efficient use of the corn and giving ethanol manufacturers an incentive to manufacture it.

Perhaps the most important aspect of the new formulation: It’s entirely renewable and made with America’s largest crop. American farmers plant 90 million acres of corn every year, which is then used in everything from high fructose corn syrup to feeding livestock. This ensures a steady supply of feedstock that is less susceptible to market volatility. LANL believes that a JP-10 market dominated by the new fuel could drop prices 50 percent, with all of the planting, processing, and refining done in the US, which will also create American jobs.


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LANL believes that JP-10’s high energy density might lead more high-performance jet engines to use the fuel. This would result in aircraft with longer ranges or that need to carry less fuel to get from Point A to Point B. If so, this new fuel could be yet another military innovation that carries over to the civilian world.

Source: Los Alamos National Laboratory

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