Every time, a rocket is launched from the Xichang Space Launch Center, located in a populated and hilly terrain of the Sichuan province, the villages in its vicinity are exposed to a highly toxic combination of nitrogen tetraoxide and hypergolic (scientific jargon for a quickly igniting substance) hydrazine emitting out of falling expendable stages of its rocket. As the world anticipates increasingly frequent space launches, the global call for cleaner fuel alongside reusability of rockets is growing day by day. No, there is no regulation coming top-down from multilateral institutions or governments, it is the increasing competition that is making new space launch companies use clean fuels as their unique selling point, their USP.
The solution to numerous problems that we humans have created lie hidden in human ingenuity. The ingenuity demands communicating the solution in a simple manner. Perhaps that has now happened. So, a Japanese space startup, Interstellar Technologies, recently static-fire-tested its ZERO launch vehicle’s rocket engine, which used liquid biological methane as its propellent. Here it get’s interesting – the liquid biomethane was supplied by Air Water Inc., a Japanese energy solutions company also dealing with liquified natural gas, which runs a circular economy set-up around the Hokkaido Space Launch Center, where the static-fire-test happened. The liquid biomethane was collected from farm-based biogas plants that had converted cattle manure into biogas, that is liquid methane.
Well our ISRO, Skyroot and many upcoming space launch and fuel startups are working on methalox engines, but let’s ask three comprehensive questions –
1. Can the Indian government merge its biogas production acceleration schemes with the push for greener rocket fuels?
2. Can India leverage its high cattle population to become world leader in methalox fuel, supplying it to the world?
3. Can India drive the global push for clean and environmentally sustainable rocket fuels?
At the recently concluded COP28, India refrained from making any commitment to join the West-led Dairy Methane Action Alliance, which is an alliance of few European and American dairy industries that have pledged to announce their methane emissions 2024 onwards. Indeed, the dairy alliance aim to show their reduced emissions year-on-year, none have shown how would they do it.
The Western scientific institutions have time and again reprimanded India on its natural methane emissions, often hypocritically overlooking their high per capita greenhouse gas emissions. The Dairy Methane Action Alliance is one way to reprimand the Indian cooperative dairy industry. Indeed the Indian dairy industry will have to innovate to not let itself be pulled down by international market forces, but it is more important for the Indian biogas industry to ace its act, now that India has kickstarted the Global Biofuels Alliance during its 2023 G20 Presidency.
India has an enormous biogas production potential; The World Biogas Association estimates India’s biogas production potential to be enormously high at 1108 trillion watt hours. The Indian government through its state-owned oil and gas sector companies has initiated program’s like SATAT to incentivize biogas production and supply it for surface transportation. But, what gets missed is the immense potential of the same biomethane to be supplied as methalox or cryogenic bio-hydrogen rocket fuel for Indian space launchers and for the world space launch market.
India’s dairy, biofuels, and space industry must come together to execute at scale what Interstellar Technologies of Japan has demonstrated. India must leave no stone unturned to use its inherent strength to excel in globally impactful industries. Let bio-methane not be our weakness, leverage its massive environmental, energy and economic potential.