Metal Fueled Propulsion Systems

Literature Summary

An increasing amount of literature can be found demonstrating the potential of an atmospheric breathing propulsion system for planet exploration. For example, by using carbon dioxide as the oxidant and powdered metal as the propellant. The first step would be the use of liquid hydrogen to launch the main spacecraft to achieve space flight and to begin the journey to another planet such as Mars. Once the main spacecraft reaches a particular planet, the orbiting module would detach to allow the planet exploration craft to descend into the atmosphere and land safely by balloon deployment or the use of propellants to slow the descent. It is proposed that the planet exploration craft could have a built in propulsion system. The engine would use the excess carbon dioxide on the planet as oxidant and a powdered metal-based fuel (magnesium or aluminum) as the propellant to explore the different regions of the planet.

Magnesium reacts with Carbon Dioxide to form Magnesium Oxide

The use of a magnesium as a fuel is of particular interest to us due to the reaction with carbon dioxide and this will be discussed in further work. In addition, we are also interested in carbothermic reduction reactions.

Carbothermic Reduction

A simple way to understand a carbothermic reduction reaction is to see it as a way to produce magnesium metal from magnesium oxide. In this reaction we start out with magnesium oxide and carbon as solids to form magnesium and carbon monoxide as gases.

Research Questions related to Carbon Dioxide Oxidized Propulsion for Mars Exploration

  1. How to configure and design a magnesium/carbon dioxide engine?
  2. How to maintain continuous or sustained combustion of Magnesium?
  3. How to address slag formation issues? Such as the clearing of slag from the oxidizer injection ports in the combustion chamber.
  4. Are there estimates of the mass flow rates for such a system?
  5. What are the sizing specifications for the inlet, combustor, nozzle?

Related Post: metal-as-a-fuel

Literature Cited

Axdahl, E.L., and L. Li. 2018. Uninstalled Performance Predictions of a Magnesium-Fueled Ramjet Cycle in Carbon Dioxide Atmospheres. Conference Paper: AIAA Propulsion and Energy 2018; July 09, 2018 – July 11, 2018; Cincinnati, OH; United States. NF1676L-29162. Retrieved from

Brooks, G., S. Trang, P. Witt, M.N.H. Khan, and M. Nagle. 2006. The Carbothermic Route to Magnesium. JOM 58: 51–55.

Foote, J.P., and R.J. Litchford. 2007. Powdered Magnesium-Carbon Dioxide Rocket Combustion Technology for In Situ Mars Propulsion. Technical Report: NASA/TP-2007-215077, M-1203. Retrieved from

Gonyea, K.C., R.D. Braun, and A.H. Auslender. 2018. Feasibility and Performance of Atmospheric-Breathing Propulsion for Mars Descent. Journal of Spacecraft and Rockets. 55(2). DOI: 10.2514/1.A33959

Gonyea, K.C., and R.D. Braun. 2016. Propulsion System Design for a Martian Atmosphere-Breathing Supersonic Retropropulsion Engine. Journal of Propulsion and Power 32(3). DOI: 10.2514/1.B35776.

Other Web Sources

Fire and Flame 38 – Magnesium Burning in CO2. 2013. From the Peter Wothers lecture series – Fire and Flame. Royal Society Of Chemistry. YouTube. Retrieved from

MagSonic: Magnesium production at the speed of sound. 2013. CSIRO. YouTube. Retreived from

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