CNES Eyes Biomass to Fuel Future Ariane Launchers

Biomethane installation (Credit: Naskeo Environnement)

The idea of ​​using biomethane to propel future generations of Ariane is gaining ground. This innovative technological solution would have great economic and environmental interest and many positive repercussions in Guyana.

PARIS (CNES PR) — The future Ariane Next launcher , which could take over from Ariane 6 by 2030 or 2035, will have to be more economical to meet market needs. One of the avenues to achieve this could be to use liquid methane rather than hydrogen to power the engines.

“The matter is not yet 100% decided, but we are looking with interest at the combination of oxygen and methane. This is why we are looking for the best methane production channel from an economic as well as an environmental standpoint,” said Pascal Noir, project manager at the Launchers Department.

The exploitation of methane produced in Guyana from local biomass  appears to be the most virtuous solution to meet the two previous objectives. 

Pascal Noir (Credit: CNES)

“We favor anaerobic digestion, which is an industrially controlled process that therefore does not require fundamental research. It consists in producing biogas, which will then be liquefied and purified to be used as propellant for the launcher. This technology has the advantage of not weighing on local agriculture and natural forest areas,” Noir said.

Indeed, this biomethane sector is a real regional project which will rely mainly on the recovery of waste: industrial and household waste, used edible oils, agricultural and food waste. These inputs will be supplemented if necessary by energy crops such as sorghum and cane cultivated on land not used for agriculture, or in intercropping, or as agricultural co-products. Moreover, all supply chains are in accordance with the new European directive on renewable biomass (RED II) .

In addition to its economic and environmental interest in the context of the Ariane Next program, we can hope that the local production of biomethane will have multiple positive benefits in Guyana.  Methanization could in particular contribute to the development of employment in the field of waste recovery, and constitute a new source of clean energy for industry and households.

A Preliminary Project is in Progress

After the study phase, a preliminary project was launched in 2019 to validate the feasibility of such a solution. A first installation is planned to produce biomethane to supply the Themis demonstrator , the small launcher that prefigures Ariane Next. If the correct operation of the unit is confirmed, it will then be possible to move on to the development of a larger-scale installation for Ariane Next with potentially other applications if biomass resources allow it.

The first results of the preliminary project made it possible to define the concept of biomass (distribution of inputs), the sizing of the unit and the associated process. They also highlight a biogas production cost close to the cost of natural gas marketed in Guyana, which allows the unit to be valued in the years when it will not be used for test campaigns, thus showing that a project a launcher can also contribute to a circular economy. 

The preliminary project was carried out in partnership with the following companies: NASKEO Environnement for the methanization part, ENEA Consulting for environmental support, SIMA-PECAT for local agronomic expertise and AIR LIQUIDE for the purification/ liquefaction part.

Did You Know?

Why use methane rather than hydrogen, when hydrogen is more efficient? Because its cryogenic temperature, at which it becomes liquid, is higher: -161 ° C for methane against -253 ° C for hydrogen.  This temperature difference makes it easier to use, and therefore more economical. 

“The fact of working at lower temperatures facilitates the design and probably the production of the various engine components, which has significant consequences on the cost”, Noir explained.