Why You Shouldn't Believe Stories About Rocket Fuel For CarsS

A few days ago this article about the "European Space Agency working on using rocket fuel in cars" was brought to my attention, and I'll admit it made me a little excited. Perhaps not exactly visibly, but close. Upon reading the article, however, I was disappointed. I'll explain why, and also try to help you, curious readers, locate key words used in these sorts of articles that often mask more mundane truths.

The biggest problem here is that the fuel in question isn't rocket fuel, and it's not even really a fuel at all. It's an element (and energy carrier), Hydrogen. The rocket in question is the Ariane 5, which does, in fact, use cryogenically-stored liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen for its main stage. The hydrogen combines with the oxygen to form water vapor and release energy, the exhaust is funneled out the nozzles of the rocket, up it goes and everyone has a great time.

Of course, storing hydrogen has all manner of issues associated with it, and this is where the real meat of the article is. MagnaSteyr (which makes, among many other things, the fabric roof on the Fiat 500C), designed and built the hydrogen storage tanks for the Ariane rocket.

It was because of their expertise in hydrogen storage that BMW came to them to design the hydrogen storage tanks for their internal-combustion, dual-fuel hydrogen/gasoline limited-production cars, the Hydrogen 7. So, what we have here is the same company who designed hydrogen fuel tanks for the Ariane rocket designed a similar, smaller-scale tank for these big 12-cylinder BMWs that only a handful of rich, high profile people ever get to drive.

There is absolutely a direct transference of knowledge from the space agency to general industry. The problems with this article are that this happened in 2006, and the article came out on November 8, 2012 based on a press release from the ESA from November 2, 2012. So it's not really new, as such.

It's interesting, sure, but it's also a bit deceptive, mostly about the "rocket fuel" part. Those two words make great headlines— and I can't say I'd have done it any differently— but people should be aware that the words "rocket fuel" usually describe something far more mundane than you'd think. Hydrogen, for example, is used to fuel rockets, and it's the most abundant element in the universe, and it burns with only water vapor for exhaust, and it seems like the holy grail.

But, right now, it's not. That's because it just takes too much energy to actually extract it from other materials to be really viable— the extraction takes money, energy, and produces its own harmful emissions. Someday we may be able to just collect it from interstellar space in gigantic hyper-wicker space baskets, but we're not there yet. And many, many companies are researching this problem actively.

Other rocket fuels are even less exciting. You know what the most-flown manned rocket in human history uses for fuel? Kerosene. That stuff you could buy at a general store in 1840 to fuel your lantern so you could have your boot-black boil more parrafin or whatever the hell it was people did by kerosene lanterns back then. Rocket fuel often isn't rocket science.

So, as a writer for the web about things that occasionally include rockets and fuel and cars and whatever, I'd like to give some advice. Take any headline that talks about "rocket fuel" with a big grain of salt. I myself may use it for some impact at some point in the future, and I want to make sure I've given fair warning.

So check out my article about how stagecoaches were lit with incredible rocket-fuel lighting systems way back in the 1870s!