Japanese engineers test rocket engine powered by cow poop

Methane from manure has several advantages, including performance and availability, experts say

Vishwam Sankaran
Friday 15 December 2023 04:41 GMT
To the moo-n: This start-up is trying to fuel a rocket engine with cow manure

Engineers in Japan have trialed a new rocket engine powered by liquid methane sourced from cow dung, an advance that may lead to the development of a more sustainable propellent.

The rocket engine, dubbed Zero, was kickstarted in a 10-second “static fire test” in Japan’s Hokkaido Spaceport, the startup Interstellar Technologies Inc. (IST) said in a statement.

Zero – a small satellite launch vehicle – is powered by liquid biomethane, or LBM, derived from ”livestock manure” that is sourced from Hokkaido’s dairy farms, the company said.

IST shared footage of the test on X – the platform previously known as Twitter – showing the engine firing up and shooting a powerful horizontal blue flame.

The latest milestone marks a “world-first” test of LBM as a rocket engine fuel for a private space company following the success of the European Space Agency’s (ESA) development of a rocket engine using the propellant, the company noted.

A growing number of studies point to the disadvantages of conventionally used rocket fuel, sparking concerns about the release of soot and other pollutants and greenhouse gases from burning propellants.

Research has also raised concerns about methane from belching cattle and other livestock contributing to global warming and climate change.

By using LBM, IST hopes to make the majority of rocket fuel sustainable, contributing to climate change mitigation.

“As a Hokkaido-based company surrounded by a thriving dairy industry, IST actively contributes to local energy self-reliance and environmental solutions,” the startup said.

Liquid methane also has several advantages over conventionally used fuel, including its performance, ease of handling, availability, and environmental impact, experts say.

This has led to a demand for high-purity methane – free of impurities – in rocket propellants.

The latest test centered around the conversion of biogas from livestock manure in the Hokkaido Tokachi area into LBM, which researchers claim is a sustainable alternative to liquid natural gas (LNG).

Since methane is a potent greenhouse gas it poses a challenge in global warming due to its emissions from cattle.

Odor and water pollution from livestock manure are also societal concerns.

LBM for the test was produced by separating and refining methane – the main component of biogas – and subsequently liquefying it at about -160°C, the company said.

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