Hydrogen peroxide could be key to future power sources

October 28, 1999

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- Scientists and engineers from around the world will meet in November at Purdue University to discuss hydrogen peroxide's role in developing a new class of environmentally friendly rocket propellants and highly efficient fuel cells for generating electricity.

"These are nontoxic, renewable energy sources," said Stephen Heister, Purdue professor of aeronautics and astronautics who helped organize the Second International Hydrogen Peroxide Propulsion Conference, sponsored by the School of Aeronautics and Astronautics, Nov. 7-10.

"Anybody interested in peroxide for power applications will be here," said another conference organizer, John Rusek, an assistant professor of aeronautics and astronautics who specializes in propulsion and power research.

Rusek is trying to develop a high-efficiency fuel cell that generates electricity from hydrogen peroxide and aluminum. Such a device could one day replace conventional batteries and would have many applications, including use by military field personnel who lug around heavy portable electronic equipment. He will discuss that work during the conference, which is expected to draw an international attendance of about 150 researchers, with 29 of them delivering scientific papers. Presentations will be made by officials from the U.S. Navy and Air Force, Joint Services, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, as well as researchers from private industry.

Hydrogen peroxide differs from water only in that it contains two oxygen atoms. It might be used to replace conventional oxidizers, such as liquid oxygen, nitrogen tetroxide and ammonium perchlorate, which are needed to burn rocket fuels.

"Nitrogen tetroxide is one of the oxidizers that we are essentially trying to replace," Heister said. "That's a poisonous gas. If we had some in the room right now, we'd be dying or dead."

Unlike the drugstore version of hydrogen peroxide, which is about 97 percent water, the rocket-propulsion variety has just the opposite concentration ù 3 percent water and 97 percent hydrogen peroxide ù and it has had critical contaminants removed, Heister said.

This purified, concentrated form of H2O2 is broken down with chemical catalysts, yielding oxygen that combusts with alcohol-based fuels, such as methanol or ethanol, which can be derived from corn. Such a propulsion system would provide an inexpensive alternative to today's nonrenewable hydrocarbon fuels that are processed from crude oil, Heister said.

Breaking down peroxide not only would provide oxygen for combustion but also would produce steam, an important byproduct that could be used to run a turbine to generate electricity, Heister said.

Hydrogen peroxide has a history in aviation; for example, it was used in the German V-2 rocket and the experimental X-15 rocket plane.

"It kind of went by the wayside because, at the time, we were seeking the very highest-energy propellants," Heister said. However, new technologies are promising to revive its potential.

Beal Aerospace Technologies Inc. in Texas is planning to develop a complete, three-stage launch vehicle that uses hydrogen peroxide as an oxidizer. Its first-stage engine would be the largest rocket engine ever built, producing more than three million pounds of thrust. Meanwhile, NASA and the Air Force are working to develop lower-cost rocket engines using hydrogen peroxide as an oxidizer.
Related Web sites:
Hydrogen Peroxide Propulsion Conference: http://aae.www.ecn.purdue.edu/AAE/conferences/hydrogenperoxide.html
Beal Aerospace Technologies Inc.: http://www.bealaerospace.com
John Rusek: http://aae.www.ecn.purdue.edu/AAE/Fac_Staff/Faculty/rusek
Stephen Heister: http://Roger.ecn.purdue.edu/~heister

Purdue University

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