A New Iron Age: Metal Fuel for Carbon-Free Energy on Earth… and the Moon – SciTechDaily

Burn iron

Scientists have been researching discrete combustion, a form of fire that jumps from one fuel source to another, using iron powder in zero gravity. The product that remains after combustion is iron oxide, a substance that does not produce carbon dioxide and can be recycled endlessly. Following these microgravity experiments, efficient iron furnaces have been developed, leading to the creation of a circular, carbon-free energy storage. A demonstration plant is operational in the Netherlands and several start-ups are investigating this carbon-free fuel for factories and industrial processes. In the future, this metal fuel could also be used for sustainable lunar outposts, potentially using lunar minerals and ice to produce metal powders for propulsion and water for consumption. Credit: Iron+

Researchers have used microgravity experiments to study the discrete combustion of iron powder, leading to carbon-free, endlessly recyclable energy storage. This has promising applications on Earth and for future sustainable outposts on the moon.

Everything burns. In the right environment, all matter can burn by adding oxygen, but by finding the right mix and generating enough heat, some materials ignite more easily than others. Researchers interested in learning more about a type of fire called discrete combustion used ESA’s microgravity experiment facilities to investigate.

A team led by Professor Jeffrey Bergthorson from McGill University in Canada and Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands investigated the combustion of iron powder in zero gravity in a series of parabolic flights and sounding rockets launched from Sweden. Their research was pure physics, the scientists wanted to know more about discrete combustion where flames do not burn continuously through fuel but jump from one fuel source to another. This form of fire hardly occurs naturally on Earth, but an example is a forest fire where one tree burns completely and the fire jumps to the next tree when the temperature rises enough for combustion.

Burn discreetly

This hypnotic video of discrete combustion was recorded during a parabolic flight experiment aboard the Canadian National Research Center’s Falcon-20 aircraft that provides researchers with up to eighteen seconds of precious gravity. Credit: Perwaves team

Burning iron dust in zero-g aircraft and rocket flight experiments allowed the iron particles to float and ignite discreetly. High-speed cameras captured the spectacle and allowed the researchers to better understand the phenomenon, resulting in computer models that showed the ideal conditions for the fuel to burn on Earth.

Combustion of iron powder

Did you know that iron can burn? The combustion of iron powder that can be seen here takes place completely smokeless and carbon-free. Credits: TU/e ​​/ Solid / Bart van Overbeeke

Discrete combustion for sustainable energy

With the new insight made possible by microgravity research, it became possible to build efficient and practical iron incinerators.

The benefit of burning iron is due to its chemistry. Essentially, fuel combustion is the process of transforming a material by adding oxygen atoms. This is why carbon-based fuel produces the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide when two oxygen atoms are added to the carbon-based fuel such as wood, coal or oil. With iron, the product left after combustion is iron oxide, better known as rust. No carbon dioxide is produced and the rusty iron can be easily collected because it does not form a gas – burnt iron does not emit harmful gases at all.

Iron rust can even be processed to remove the oxygen and return it as iron using hydrogen. By using electricity from sustainable sources, iron as a fuel can become a circular, endlessly recyclable energy storage.

A demonstration plant is already in operation in Budel, near Eindhoven, the Netherlands, using iron as a fuel source, this generator can produce 1 MW of steam in a unit located in a warehouse. On scale, such an iron power plant could produce much more energy.

Several start-ups are already pursuing this carbon-free fuel to power factories and industrial processes.

Iron fuel demonstration plant

Demonstration plant for iron furnaces. Credit: Metalot

From space to earth and then to the moon

As space agencies prepare to build sustainable outposts on the moon, supplying energy to the astronauts on the moon is just one of the challenges to overcome. Metal fuel could be a solution. Using solar energy, not only aluminum and silicon powders can be produced from moon minerals, but also hydrogen and oxygen can be extracted from moon ice. The hydrogen can then be used to convert lunar dust high in iron and titanium into water. and iron powder. The metal powders and oxygen from the water ice can be used as propellant for rockets or land transport, and the by-product water can even be used as drinking water.

Moon Surface Scenario

Artist’s impression of a lunar exploration scenario. Credit: ESA-ATG

This process may seem like science fiction now, but using iron as a fuel source on Earth started as an idea just a decade ago. Now the metal fuel community includes hundreds of scientists and engineers around the world and is a lighthouse technology for alternative carbon free fuel. In a not too distant future you could run your car or house on iron!

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Metals can be produced using clean energy, such as from solar cells or wind turbines. That electricity is stored as chemical energy in the metal powder with energy densities that are competitive with fossil fuels. This has the potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions globally, but a barrier to the implementation of this technology is the development of combustion systems that can burn the metal fuels efficiently, which requires an understanding of their combustion physics. Credit: ESA –"glossaryLink" aria-describedby="tt" data-cmtooltip="

European Space Agency
The European Space Agency (ESA) is an intergovernmental organization dedicated to the exploration and study of space. ESA was founded in 1975 and has 22 member states, with headquarters in Paris, France. ESA is responsible for the development and coordination of European space activities, including the design, construction and launch of spacecraft and satellites for scientific research and Earth observation. Some of ESA’s flagship missions included the Rosetta mission to study a comet, the Gaia mission to create a 3D map of the Milky Way, and the ExoMars mission to search for evidence of the past or current life on Mars.

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