Sky rockets in flight, biofuels delight! The bioLPG story, Orbex’s biofuel powered space rocket and more

October 24, 2021 |

Out of this world things are happening in the United Kingdom with the news from Orbex that their Prime space rocket will have a 96% lower carbon footprint than comparable space launch programs thanks to their use of bioLPG from Calor and they are committed to offsetting all residual carbon emissions from launch operations. Calor’s BioLPG is produced by Neste and is then supplied by Calor via their parent company – SHV Energy. How’s that for biofuels delight?

In today’s Digest, all about this rocket running on biofuel, the world’s largest 3D printed rocket engine, the bioLPG story, the latest on more sustainable rockets and space, and more.

The rockin’ rocket

While the rockets’ red glare From Francis Scott Key’s “The Star Spangled Banner” referred to military rockets the British fleet was launching over Baltimore Harbor during the battle for Fort McHenry, a historic victory that interrupted a string of U.S. defeats during the War of 1812, the rockets we are talking about today are the out of this world space kind. But those war rockets are of course what helped inspire space rockets, but no matter the rocket you refer to, they need power. Lots and lots of power to launch and propel themselves.

And while Francis Scott Key probably wasn’t thinking about the environmental impact of rockets in 1812, we know more today thanks to science. Thus, the mission to better rocket launches and lower the carbon footprint of our space adventures.

So what’s special about this Orbex Prime rocket?

First, it is the world’s largest 3D Printed Rocket Engine. Unveiled publicly in early 2019, their 3D printed rocket engine is uniquely manufactured in a single piece without joins in partnership with additive manufacturer SLM Solutions. Given the extreme temperature and pressure fluctuations involved in space flight, this gives the engine an advantage over other rocket engines, which can suffer from weaknesses associated with joining and welding.

Orbex commissioned AMCM to build the largest industrial 3D printer in Europe, allowing the innovative UK-based space launch company to rapidly print complex rocket engines in-house. The custom-made, large volume 3D printer will allow Orbex to print more than 35 large-scale rocket engine and main stage turbopump systems annually, as the company scales up its production capabilities for launches.

It is also the first commercial rocket engine designed to work with bio-propane, a clean-burning, renewable fuel source that cuts carbon emissions by 90% compared to fossil hydrocarbon fuels, supplied by Orbex’s new exclusive BioLPG fuel partner Calor.

Prime is poised to become the first in a new generation of ultra green launch systems, benefiting from the use of renewable, ultra-low-carbon biofuel. It is also designed to be reusable and will not leave any debris on Earth, in the Earth´s oceans, or in the Earth’s atmosphere.

Orbex is also committing to offsetting all emissions from the rocket and its launch operations, ensuring every launch is carbon neutral. Orbex plans to launch Prime from Space Hub Sutherland[i], the carbon-neutral Spaceport in the North of Scotland.

Let’s study the study

The new study by the University of Exeter calculated that a single Orbex Prime launch would produce up to 86 per cent less emissions than a similar-sized vertical launch vehicle powered by fossil fuels. This gulf in emissions is primarily due to the similar-sized vehicle emitting high levels of black carbon, the particulate matter formed by the incomplete combustion of fuels containing carbon – and a major contributor to climate change when emitted from rocket engines into the stratosphere.

The study also compared the carbon footprint of launching Prime with that of a rocket that is horizontally launched from a carrier aircraft. In this comparison, the direct launch emissions required by Prime was as much as 96 per cent lower than the horizontally launched vehicle.

“Orbex will be the first commercial orbital space launch company to use a renewable, carbon-friendly fuel,” said Chris Larmour, CEO of Orbex. “We believe it is time for ultra green launch systems to come to the fore. We have to move away from the use of heavily polluting fossil fuels now that more efficient, sustainable alternatives are readily available, and we hope to see much tighter regulations coming into force. As the world prepares to attend the COP26 climate change conference in Glasgow, we have already moved decisively to a fully sustainable solution that avoids the massive carbon emissions profiles of old-fashioned fossil fuelled launch solutions.”

According to the study by the University of Exeter, a single launch of the Orbex Prime rocket would result in total emissions of 13.8 tonnes of CO2e. This includes the direct emissions from the launch, the indirect emissions created from the production of the propellent fuels required (biopropane and liquid oxygen), and the radiative forcing (RF) effects of non-CO2 emissions at high altitude[ii]. This carbon footprint is comparable to the average emissions created by one single person in the UK each year[iii].

Orbital space launches using fossil fuels create enormous amounts of black carbon in the upper atmosphere. Annually the amount created by around 120 space launches is equivalent to the black carbon emissions from the entire global aviation industry. Orbex´s solution almost entirely eliminates black carbon emissions.

“The UK space industry has a key role to play in combating climate change, for example by launching satellites that can monitor environmental changes on Earth – but such benefits must be weighed against the environmental impact of space launches, which by their nature can be highly carbon intensive,” said Dr Xiaoyu Yan of the Environment and Sustainability Institute at the University of Exeter. “Our study shows that the launch operation planned by Orbex can result in a significantly lower carbon footprint compared to the other launch scenarios considered in our analysis.”

Why BioLPG?

BioLPG, also called biopropane and renewable propane, is produced as a by-product from the renewable diesel (HVO) production process. According to SHV Energy, for every tonne of HVO, 50 kg of bioLPG is generated. BioLPG is chemically identical to LPG, but with a lower carbon footprint, meaning it can function as a drop-in fuel.

During manufacturing, the feedstocks undergo a series of complex treatments, according to Calor. They are combined with hydrogen in a process, called hydrogenolysis, which separates and purifies their energy content. During the refining process, a variety of waste ‘off-gases’ are produced that contain propane or BioLPG. For every tonne of biodiesel, 50 kg of BioLPG is generated from this off gas stream. This co-product is then purified to make it identical to conventional propane. And there you have it, the production of BioLPG.

A key factor in the environmental credentials of Orbex’s Prime is its innovative choice of fuel.

The BioLPG used by Orbex for Prime is sourced from Calor, the UK’s leading BioLPG supplier, that produces the propane as a by-product from the waste and residual material from renewable diesel production. As a result, the Greenhouse Gas (GHG) factor[iv] for BioLPG is 90 per cent lower than a fossil-based fuel such as RP-1, the highly-refined form of Kerosene typically used as rocket fuel.

Propane is usually made from oil refining, but it doesn’t have to be! Calor isn’t the only one looking at this. In fact, Calor’s BioLPG is produced by Neste and is then supplied by Calor via their parent company – SHV Energy.  It is manufactured in a custom-built production unit in Rotterdam and is a co-product of the ground breaking NEXBTL biodiesel production process.

SHV Energy found bacterial species from a marine sediment that are capable of producing propane. As reported in The Digest in November 2019, SHV Energy, one of the world’s largest LPG distributors and provides LNG and bioLPG to people without access to the grid, joined the KLM Corporate BioFuel Program (KCBP). In so doing, SHV Energy will reduce its headquarters’ CO2 emissions by 50%. Check out “Renewable Propane from Marine Sediment Bacteria: The Digest’s 2021 Multi-Slide Guide to SHV Energy” here.

Earlier this year in February, The Digest reported that UGI International announced a new supply and development partnership with Ekobenz, a Polish technology specialist in catalytic conversion of bioethanol to bio-gasoline and bioLPG. Per the terms of the agreement, UGI International secured the exclusive rights to Ekobenz’ supply of bioLPG, a renewable form of propane-butane produced from advanced bioethanol. The primary raw material to produce bioLPG is the conversion of organic material derived from industrial waste. The product can be used by all of UGI International’s existing LPG entities operating across Europe, and significantly boosts the company’s portfolio of sustainable fuels.

And let’s not forget that in February, The Digest reported that Maine-based bluShift Aerospace successfully launched their first commercial biofuel-powered rocket in its efforts to become the “Uber” of space, calling SpaceX a freight train to space due to the difference in the rockets’ sizes. Those larger rockets can carry thousands of kilos of cargo while bluShift’s smaller Spacedust 1.0 rocket can carry one or two payloads. The company spent the last six years developing a bio-based rocket fuel from an unknown feedstock source or technology – we hope to find out more on this.

The Orbex Backstory

The COVID-19 pandemic did not slow Orbex down one bit. In fact, in March, Orbex won the largest ever award from The European Space Agency (ESA)’s Boost! Commercial Space Transportation Services and Support (C-STS) programme, designed to support commercially sustainable space transportation services in Europe.

The Boost! contract was awarded to Orbex following an in-depth evaluation process, assessing Orbex’s commercial strategy, financial stability and technical progress. This is the largest award made to date by the programme. Orbex will supplement the funding with an additional €4.7 million in matching private investment.

And that’s not it in funding during the pandemic – In December 2020, Orbex was the 1st UK space-sector company to win prestigious Horizon 2020 funding – an impressive $24 million in a funding round led by BGF, the UK’s most active investment company, and Octopus Ventures, one of the largest VCs in Europe. The new investments secure the roadmap to the first launch from the Space Hub Sutherland spaceport in Scotland.

Bottom Line

Even back in July 2019, The Digest reported that Liquid Gas UK, the newly re-branded trade association representing the liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) industry in the UK has launched its new vision; laying the marker for the industry to transition to 100% bioLPG by 2040.

And it’s not just the UK looking for more sustainable fuels and rocket launches – The Digest reported in December 2020 that the Indian Space Research Organization is working to develop green fuels like hydrogen peroxide for rockets, potentially as a co-propellant with ethanol. Liquid oxygen (LOX) together with methane are also possible fuel options following a successful test.

Soon there will be sky rockets in flight with biofuels delight! Lower carbon footprint from the space industry, more support for biofuels producers, improved tech – the stars will align to make our space future look brighter than ever.

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