Hydrazine ban could cost Europe’s space industry billions

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BREMEN, Germany — The European Union might ban the use of the toxic satellite propellant hydrazine as early as 2021, which would present a major setback for the block’s space industry.

Priya Fernando, head of the Propulsion Design Group at Airbus Defence and Space,  said even if the space sector gets an exemption to continue using hydrazine, the cost of the fuel would double in Europe, which would seriously handicap EU space manufacturers. Fernando said the EU space industry might lose up to 2 billion euros ($2.35 billion) per year as a result of operations being moved to countries where no restrictions apply.

Speaking during the opening day of  Space Tech Expo Europe here, Fernando said that alternative monopropellants such as hydroxylamine nitrate (HAN) or ammonium dinitramide (AND) are nowhere near ready to replace hydrazine in the near future.

“It’s a nightmare not only for Airbus but for the whole European space industry,” Fernando told SpaceNews. “I think if it’s banned, it should be banned across the globe. There is no point for it to be banned just in Europe.”

Hydrazine is known to be highly toxic to living organisms. In 2011, the European Commission included hydrazine among the candidates for the list of substances of very high concern, which is regulated by the Registration of Evaluation Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals (REACH) framework.

The EU space industry uses about 20 tons of hydrazine annually, mostly for satellite propulsion, Fernando said. The substance is manufactured outside Europe and brought in for purification and further refinement. Over 120,000 tons of hydrazine are manufactured globally every year. The majority is used as a foaming agent in the chemical industry.

Fernando said it’s highly likely the substance would be included on the list in 2021 but that most probably the space sector will receive and exemption.

“For us, the question is how to get the propellant at a low cost,” Fernando said. “We are not sure whether this is going to be possible because as with anything, when we buy it in bulk, the price is low. If we cannot buy bulk, the price will go up. And that is a problem. Our procurement cost for the propellant will go up, even if it’s exempted for use in space.”

Fernando’s team at Airbus has looked at available alternatives but found that within the given timeframe, the use of alternative propellants would do more harm than good.

“We have to understand that hydrazine has been there for a long time,” he said. “All the systems have been matured using hydrazine. With the new propellants, we need to understand how it affects the spacecraft, how it affects the propulsion system, all the surfaces it comes into contact with.”

One of the biggest problems, Fernando said, is the fact that alternative propellants, such as ADN, need to be heated before ignition. That puts additional thermal stress on the propulsion system, which leads to a reduction in lifespan.

Moreover, the heating requirement means the fuel can’t be ignited immediately without preparation.

“There are situations where we need to use the propulsion system very quickly — for example, when separating from the launcher,” said Fernando. “But these new propellants such as HAN and ADN need up to 60 minutes to be heated up. We don’t have that time in this situation.”

A study performed by Fernando and his team at Airbus found that alternative propellants such as ADN might already be fit for use on small satellites. The technology, however, is not ready for application on larger, costlier missions.

“If you can take the risk, then you can enjoy the benefit of having a low-toxicity propellant that you can actually work with,” Fernando said. “You can load the propellant and transport the satellite to the launch site. All these things are attractive for a cubesat or a small satellite. But we can’t do that for a bigger spacecraft.”

Another problem is the relatively low thrust achievable with current system using ADN and other alternative propulsion systems including electric propulsion.

In a 10- to 20-year timeframe the industry may be able to develop a new propellant that would be environmentally friendly, non-toxic, cheap and efficient, Fernando believes. Such a propellant would naturally replace the toxic hydrazine. However, if the industry is hit by the increased cost due the regulation of hydrazine, this development process might stall, as financial resources would be scarce.

“It will not help with the development of the new green propellant because we would struggle to survive,” Fernando said.

The Airbus assessment expects the European launcher and propulsion system manufacturers to incur losses of around 300 million euros a year if hydrazine is included into the REACH regulation. Space vehicle manufacturers would lose 200 million euros every year. Launch service providers would be by 500 million euros worse off every year. The local business environments would lose 1 billion euros. The total loss to the European economy as estimated by the Airbus assessment would stand at around 2 billion euros annually.