Aerospace & Defence

Innovative autophage engines and the future of rocketry

20th January 2024
Sheryl Miles

The autophage rocket engine, utilising its plastic fuselage for fuel, marks a significant innovation in aerospace engineering and it has been built and fired by engineers at Glasgow University.

Here, Electronic Specifier takes a look at the propulsion system, the development of the technology by Glasgow University, and its potential to revolutionise space travel.

The evolution of rocket fuels

Rocket propulsion has evolved from early solid propellants to sophisticated liquid fuels, each with their own limitations in weight and handling; however, the autophage engine's self-consuming mechanism presents a potential solution to these challenges.

A team from Glasgow University, in collaboration with Dnipro National University and Kingston University, has successfully built and fired an autophage engine. This technology, first conceptualised in 1938, was realised in 2018 and now the Glasglow engineers have further demonstrated the capability of using more energetic liquid propellants without compromising the plastic fuselage's integrity.

The advantages and challenges of the autophage engine

The autophage engine offers several potential advantages:

  • Reduced launch weight: by consuming its structure, the rocket gradually becomes lighter, potentially improving its efficiency and payload capacity.
  • Simplification of design: combining the roles of structure and fuel simplifies the rocket's design, potentially reducing manufacturing complexities and costs.
  • Innovative use of materials: the use of materials that serve dual purposes (structural integrity and fuel) can lead to advancements in material science applicable beyond aerospace.

Despite its advantages, the autophage engine also faces significant challenges:

  • Material selection: identifying materials that can withstand structural demands while being efficient fuels is a critical hurdle.
  • Stability and control: ensuring the rocket remains stable and controllable as it consumes its structure poses a complex engineering challenge.
  • Efficiency balance: achieving a balance between structural strength and fuel efficiency requires innovative engineering and material solutions.

Behind the technology

The autophage engine is designed to heat and decompose the rocket's body, converting the material into gases that provide thrust. This process requires a careful balance of material properties, combustion efficiency, and structural integrity.

The engine’s technology primarily benefits the aerospace industry, particularly in areas where efficiency and cost-effectiveness are paramount.

With ongoing support from the UK Space Agency and the Sciences and Technology Facilities Council, development of the autophage engine continues, and the potential impact on the aerospace sector, subject to overcoming current challenges, could be substantial in leading the way for more efficient and cost-effective space propulsion.

The autophage rocket engine represents a novel approach in space propulsion, offering a promising alternative to traditional rocketry, and its successful development hinges on advancements in materials science and engineering, with the potential to transform future space missions.

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