Nov. 12, 2019

It really is rocket science

Engineers mix candle wax and laughing gas to create cleaner, cheaper rocket fuel

Rocket fuel is expensive, and toxic. What if it didn’t have to be? 

Dr. Craig Johansen’s aerospace research laboratory built a hybrid rocket motor that uses candle wax and nitrous oxide to achieve to achieve a cheaper, greener, and safer lift-off.

“The fuel we are using is a lot safer for the environment than many of the toxic fuels used in rocket motors,” said Johansen, associate professor of mechanical engineering at the Schulich School of Engineering.

“Paraffin wax is used for candles. Nitrous oxide is a widely used anesthetic for medical procedures. You take these two really common materials, put them together in a rocket motor and it’s something a lot safer to launch and safer for the environment,” he said.

Alberta’s emerging aerospace industry

Enhancing our global research impact is a key focus at the Schulich School of Engineering’s strategy Catalyst for a Connected World. As this province looks for ways to diversify its economy, Johansen thinks aerospace engineering could be a key avenue to explore.

Alberta’s aerospace industry has $1.3 billion in annual revenue, 40 per cent of which is for export markets. There are 170 active aerospace companies in the province with over 6,000 skilled professionals. Alberta is also home to 25 per cent of the country’s geomatics, navigation, and global positioning firms, Johansen explains.

Innovations developed for the aerospace industry are also well known to have unintended benefits, with technologies designed for rockets or spacecraft sparking high-tech solutions to problems here on earth. NASA even has it’s own interactive website showcasing the many spin-off aerospace technologies have yielded over the years.

“A lot of work we do, you’re not really sure what the application will be when you develop something to solve a problem. It might be used for something completely different that you haven't thought about before,” said Johansen.  “It’s all about spin-off technologies coming out of aerospace research and development. That’s one of the things we’re trying to do.”

The University of Calgary is uniquely positioned to help spark new aerospace technologies thanks to the University of Calgary Aerospace Network, a collaboration of over 40 researchers from across engineering and science focused on propelling aerospace innovation forward.

“Whenever you work on the cutting edge, you’re training engineers with skills that are important for our high-tech economy. It’s also important for advancing our frontier for exploration,” said Johansen.