It’s not that unusual for a company to put out a new generation of planes, from the latest model from Boeing to the newest in aviation competition with planes that are more fuel efficient. What’s unusual for a business these days, though, is to try to sell you its carbon-neutral jet fuel as a result.
That’s exactly what is happening with SpaceX and its commercial payload-carrying Falcon 9 rocket. When it last launched in April, the spacecraft included a commercial lab called Dragon, which was fueled with a 9,000-gallon shipment of a fuel called LNG (liquefied natural gas) from First Reserve that SpaceX had sourced from a company called Prometheus Energy. The idea, said First Reserve CEO David Brock, is to generate fuel more efficiently and reuse it multiple times, just like electric car batteries.
LNG has been commercially available for decades in several energy applications, including vehicles. But LNG’s advantages over regular gasoline are that it is a much greener fuel, meaning there is no need to add nitrogen oxide or other pollutants, such as hydrocarbons, to the mix. And LNG is also a big energy hog. According to calculations by NASA, any subsequent shipping would require the same amount of electricity as Japan’s Tokyo Electric Power would use to light all the sunflowers on the planet with a single lighting bulb.
But like coal-fired power plants, LNG burns more quickly when it’s in use, emitting a lot of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere as it does so. Newer LNG processes, which have been proposed for use in road transport and other applications, aim to capture the emissions from the fuel, which are collected and stored in giant underground caverns. The technology can be called eDiesel, after France’s Paris Declaration on Energy, where the planet’s leaders pledged to lower carbon emissions to keep the temperature rise on Earth at “well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial temperatures.”
Right now, though, Tesla Motors makes LNG for use in its electric cars. And there’s another company, FUELED Energy, with pilot projects operating in the United States, Brazil and parts of Europe. SpaceX already has patented a system, now called Falcon 9 LNG, that can be used in an “early stage” of commercial applications, said Johnna Regan, director of engineering for the company, speaking in an interview ahead of this week’s re-launch of the Falcon 9.
Regan added that SpaceX hopes to begin using LNG to power Falcon 9 rockets in 2022.
For now, about half of the LNG from its Florida launch site is brought up in tanks on Dragon, and the rest is mixed up in the rocket. Regan said the “would come in part of the fuel as part of the flight regimen and part of it as cargo that comes down to our landing site.”
So, up next for SpaceX and First Reserve? SpaceX will launch its second LNG-based payload into orbit later this month. There’s a chart that predicts the flight time for Dragon to reach the moon from Cape Canaveral, where Falcon 9 will launch from on Friday. Just to be clear: First Reserve doesn’t own the rocket, of course, but the company does bring in the LNG. If the company is successful at cutting down the energy consumption of Dragon in space, that will come directly from the first-stage battery of the rocket.
First Reserve’s Brock is excited about what the company sees as a promising new frontier in the oil market. “Commercial space is often called the Holy Grail of transportation, but to date the Holy Grail of transportation is oil and gas,” he said. “But this can play a key role in the global supply chain, improving our energy security, affordability and environment.”