NASA’s “Green” Fuel Seeks Safer Spaceflight By Finally Moving Off Toxic Hydrazine

Spaceflight is inherently dangerous. It takes a certain type of person to willingly strap into what’s essentially a refined bomb and hope for the best. But what might not be so obvious is that the risks involved aren’t limited to those who are personally making the trip. The construction and testing of space-bound vehicles poses just as much danger to engineers here on the ground as it does to the astronauts in orbit. Arguably, more so. Far more individuals have given their lives developing rocket technology than have ever died in the cockpit of one of them.

Reddish brown exhaust of hydrazine thrusters

Ultimately, this is because of the enormous amount of energy stored in the propellants required to make a rocket fly. Ground support personnel need to exercise great care even when dealing with “safe” propellants, such as the classic combination of kerosene and liquid oxygen. On the other end of the spectrum you have chemicals that are so unstable and toxic that they can’t be handled without special training and equipment.

One of the most dangerous chemicals ever used in rocket propulsion is hydrazine; and yet from the Second World War to the present day, it’s been considered something of an occupational hazard of spaceflight. While American launch vehicles largely moved away from using it as a primary propellant, hydrazine is still commonly used for smaller thrusters on spacecraft.

When SpaceX’s Crew Dragon exploded in April during ground tests, the release of approximately one and a half tons of hydrazine and nitrogen tetroxide propellants required an environmental cleanup at the site.

But soon, that might change. NASA has been working on a project they call the Green Propellant Infusion Mission (GPIM) which is specifically designed to reduce modern spacecraft’s dependency on hydrazine. In collaboration with the Air Force Research Laboratory at California’s Edwards Air Force Base, the space agency has spearheaded the development of a new propellant that promises to not just replace hydrazine, but in some scenarios even outperform it.

So what’s so good about this new wonder fuel, called AF-M315E? To really understand why NASA is so eager to power future craft with something new, we first have to look at the situation we’re in currently.

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Building A Turbocharger Turbojet

Jet engines are known to be highly demanding machines, requiring the utmost attention to tolerances, material specifications, and operating regimes. If any of these parameters are ignored, failures can be catastrophic and expensive. Despite these exacting requirements, it is possible to build a jet engine in the home workshop – and using a turbocharger is a great way to do that. (Video also embedded after the break.)

[Tech Ingredients] does a great job of discussing the basic concepts behind the turbocharger jet engine build, and how various parameters impact performance and efficiency. Through the use of various rules of thumb, developed over years of experimentation by home builders and engineers alike, it’s possible to whip up a functioning engine without too much trial and error. The video breaks down and discusses the thermodynamics at play, as well as practical considerations like cooling and lubrication, in several easy to digest steps.

Jet engines are a popular high-octane build, and we’ve seen it pulled off before by makers like [Colin Furze]. The trick is to pull it off without causing yourself serious injury.

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The “Impossible” Tech Behind SpaceX’s New Engine

Followers of the Church of Elon will no doubt already be aware of SpaceX’s latest technical triumph: the test firing of the first full-scale Raptor engine. Of course, it was hardly a secret. As he often does, Elon has been “leaking” behind the scenes information, pictures, and even video of the event on his Twitter account. Combined with the relative transparency of SpaceX to begin with, this gives us an exceptionally clear look at how literal rocket science is performed at the Hawthorne, California based company.

This openness has been a key part of SpaceX’s popularity on the Internet (that, and the big rockets), but its been especially illuminating in regards to the Raptor. The technology behind this next generation engine, known as “full-flow staged combustion” has for decades been considered all but impossible by the traditional aerospace players. Despite extensive research into the technology by the Soviet Union and the United States, no engine utilizing this complex combustion system has even been flown. Yet, just six years after Elon announced SpaceX was designing the Raptor, they’ve completed their first flight-ready engine.

The full-flow staged combustion engine is often considered the “Holy Grail” of rocketry, as it promises to extract the most possible energy from its liquid propellants. In a field where every ounce is important, being able to squeeze even a few percent more thrust out of the vehicle is worth fighting for. Especially if, like SpaceX, you’re planning on putting these new full-flow engines into the world’s largest operational booster rocket and spacecraft.

But what makes full-flow staged combustion more efficient, and why has it been so difficult to build an engine that utilizes it? To understand that, we’ll need to first take a closer look at more traditional rocket engines, and the design paradigms which have defined them since the very beginning.

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Electrifying A Honda NC50 Express

[Quasse] bought a 1978 Honda NC50 Express moped with the intention of fixing it up and riding it, only to find that the engine was beyond repair. So, they did what any self-respecting hacker would do: tear out the motor and replace it with an electric one. It’s still a work in progress, but they have got it up and running by replacing the engine with a Turnigy SK3 6374 motor, a 192KV motor that [Quasse] calculated should be able to drive the moped at just over 30 miles per hour. Given that this was the top speed that the NC50 could manage on gas power, that’s plenty fast.

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Radio Control Buggy Gets V10 Power

Amongst the more difficult machining tasks in the world are those involved in the production of internal combustion engines. Thanks to the Internet, it’s now possible to watch detailed videos of master craftsmen assembling tiny desktop V8 and V12 engines in home workshops with barely a CNC in sight. However, up until now, most of these builds have been left on the test stand to bark and wail away. No longer – [Keith] has decided that needs to change.

We’ve seen [Keith]’s work before – particularly, his 125cc V10 build, featuring fuel injection, dual overhead cams, and even a supercharger. With several micro engines under his belt now, it was time to put them to work – the V10 is getting a new home in a 1/3rd scale RC buggy.

We’re not sure [Keith] has heard the phrase “off the shelf” – even the suspension dampers on this build are custom machined. Currently up to part 5, the chassis is coming together and there are plans for a hybrid powertrain, too. Carbon fiber and anodized parts are in abundance – this build is truly a work of art.

We can’t wait to see this V10 monster tearing up the dirt – It’s an ambitious build, but if anyone can pull it off, it’s [Keith]. Video after the break.

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3D-Printing Wankel Engine From Mazda’s Beloved “Rotary Rocket”

Although there was briefly a company called Rotary Rocket, the term is much better known as a nickname for the Mazda RX-7 — one of the few cars that used a Wankel, or rotary, engine. If you ever wondered how these worked, why not print a model? That’s what [Engineering Explained] did. They printed a 1/3 scale model and made a video explaining and demonstrating its operation. The model itself was from Thingiverse, created by [EricThePoolBoy].

One thing we really liked about the model was the use of lights to show the different stages of combustion. Cool air intake is a blue light, hot air is red, and so on. It really helps visualize what’s happening. You can watch the video below.

If you haven’t seen a Wankel before, it is a clever design. It has very few moving parts and offers very smooth power transfer and high power to weight ratio. The downside, though, is that the engine deliberately burns oil to lubricate and seal, so it is difficult to meet emission standards and requires a lot of oil. The fuel efficiency of current designs is not very good either, especially since manufacturers will often trade fuel efficiency for better emissions.

If you’d like to read more about the Wankel, check out our earlier post (and the 165 comments attached). We also looked at — or rather through — another Wankel earlier this year.

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Building The World’s Smallest Jet Turbine By Hand

There are very few machines as complex to build as a turbojet engine. The turbine blades on a commercial airliner are grown from a single crystal of metal. The engineering tolerances are crazy, and everything spins really, really fast. All of these problems aren’t a concern for [Igor], who’s building what will probably end up being the world’s smallest turbojet engine. He’s doing it in his home shop, and a lot of the work is being done by hand. We don’t know the Russian translation for ‘hold my beer’, but [Igor] certainly does.

The design of this turbojet — as far as we can tell — is a centrifugal flow turbine, or something that’s not terribly different than the projects we’ve seen that turn the turbocharger from a diesel engine into a jet. The innovation here is using a lathe to machine the compressor stages by mounting an end mill to the headstock and the compressor blank on the cross slide, in a rotary table. It’s weird, but you really can’t argue with something that looks like it’ll work.

[Igor] has made a name for himself by creating some crazy contraptions. The most impressive, by far, is a gigantic remote controlled plane, powered by a handmade jet engine. This is an enormous fiberglass plane with a homebrew engine that spins at 90,000 RPM and doesn’t fly apart. That’s impressive by any measure.

[Igor] is posting a lot of his build process on YouTube and Instagram, including heat treating the compressor stages with a blowtorch. This is an amazing project, and even if this tiny turbine will be able to self-sustain, that’s an amazing accomplishment. You can check out a few more videos from [Igor] below.

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