IHI Corporation will put to practical use a next generation rocket engine that will use “liquefied methane gas” as fuel. Compared with conventional rocket engines, the engine features a small size and the capability of being used repeatedly. It is hoped that it will be used for Mars exploration. The technology has the potential for making “space travel” more realistic.
The engine that IHI intends to put to practical use is called a “methane engine,” as it uses liquefied methane gas as fuel. Compared with the current mainstream engine that uses liquefied hydrogen as fuel, the methane engine has more propulsive force with a smaller fuel tank and is capable of carrying more people and goods.
Unlike conventional rocket and jet engines that use kerosene as fuel, the methane engine does not produce soot and its piping does not become clogged, which makes it possible to use the engine for an extended period.
In principle, conventional rocket engines have been single-use and disposed of after used. However, the methane engine can be used repeatedly, so companies that launch a rocket can save costs.
The methane engine will facilitate extended operation in outer space including Mars exploration. If the reuse of the methane engine can reduce the cost of rocket launches, space travel will become more realistic.
IHI has already been discussing with multiple rocket-launching companies joint development and contracts. If IHI can lead in the development of the rocket engine – the most important part of a rocket – the company expects to increase profits because space business is continuing to grow.
It is difficult to ignite liquefied methane gas, which has been the largest hurdle for using methane gas as fuel. In 2010, IHI for the first time in the world successfully conducted a combustion test for a methane engine. After trial and error, the company devised a method for injecting the methane fuel into the engine combustion chamber at optimal timing; thus, resolved the problem.
In recent years, many civilian companies have participated in the rocket launching business one after another. One event driving this trend is that the U.S. ended its space shuttle mission in 2011 and privatized the transport of goods to the International Space Station (ISS). Beginning in 2012, Space X under the management of the founder of Tesla, a major American electric vehicle company, has provided transport service for the ISS.
Blue Origin, a space venture established by the founder of Amazon.com, a major American internet shopping company, and Space X are also developing methane-fueled rocket engines. Competition for contracts and in engine development is expected to intensify.