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The Hydrogen Peroxide Powerhouse

May 25, 2024

The Hydrogen Peroxide Powerhouse

The Rocket’s Red Glare

It’s three hours after sunset, and it’s now pitch-black in the jungle. The night ends at a barbed-wire fence that stretches across the tropical landscape. Behind it is a space rocket that towers more than 46 meters into the air and is brilliantly illuminated by floodlights. Over a loudspeaker, we can hear the voice of the Directeur des Opérations announcing the rocket’s imminent takeoff: “À tous de DDO: Attention pour moins d’une minute.”

We’re at the European spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana, and the local time is 9:46 p.m. on November 6, 2018. We’re witnessing the countdown for the launch of a Soyuz rocket that will transport the Metop-C weather satellite to its orbit high above the Earth. On board is a supply of hydrogen peroxide from Evonik.

The spectacular launch can be followed on a live video stream offered by the aerospace company Arianespace. It’s 20 seconds before takeoff. A flash of light signals the ignition of the powerful engines that will propel the gigantic 300-ton rocket into space. The roaring and hissing of the engines grow louder and louder. The engines’ power is increased step by step until finally the booster jets and the main engine are burning more than 450 kilograms of kerosene and 1,100 kilograms of liquid oxygen per second.

The control center makes another announcement: “Attention pour le décompte final.” The final seconds are counted down: “…trois, deux, unité.” The entire launchpad is enveloped in an orange glow. “Top, décollage…” The rocket rises majestically into the sky. It flies ever higher in a sweeping curve. About an hour after the launch, a spokeswoman of the European weather satellite organization Eumetsat announces that the first signals sent out by the Metop-C have been received. The mission is a success.

The Peroxide Revolution

Hydrogen peroxide (H₂O₂) is a clear, colorless liquid compound of oxygen and hydrogen. It was discovered in 1818 by Louis Jacques Thénard, as he reacted barium peroxide with nitric acid. Since then, hydrogen peroxide has been used as a powerful oxidizing agent. It’s used in the production of bleaching agents, for example, for paper, textiles or hair. It’s also used as a household disinfectant and cleaning agent. Hydrogen peroxide decomposes to water and oxygen.

Evonik has played a major role in this success. “Today every Soyuz rocket has about ten metric tons of ultrapure, highly concentrated H₂O₂ on board. It’s used for driving the turbopumps, which force the actual propellants into the combustion chamber at high pressure,” says Dr. Stefan Leininger, who is in charge of business operations for special applications of H₂O₂ at Evonik’s Resource Efficiency Segment.

Ten metric tons are still a manageable amount. Evonik is one of the world’s leading producers of hydrogen peroxide. The Group can produce more than 950,000 metric tons of it annually at 13 locations on six continents. This liquid compound of hydrogen and oxygen has been known for two centuries, but it’s still conquering new markets. Today H₂O₂ and other peroxides are used in a wide variety of areas such as semiconductor production, paper manufacturing, and food technology. “That’s largely due to this material’s excellent environmental compatibility and its efficiency,” says Leininger.

These properties are also becoming increasingly important in the aerospace industry. The aerospace market is in a state of transition. Private suppliers such as SpaceX, the company founded by the Tesla inventor Elon Musk; its competitor Blue Origin, which was founded by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos; and other companies such as OneWeb and Rocketlab are moving to the forefront. A total of 114 rockets—more than ever before—were launched in 2018. Meanwhile, the average size of the satellites these rockets are propelling into space is shrinking. Nanosatellites (with a mass of 10 kilograms or less) and microsatellites (up to a mass of 100 kilograms) are being launched more and more often. As many as 2,600 of these small artificial satellites may be launched in the next five years, according to a forecast of the consulting company Spaceworks Inc. There’s also a trend toward using smaller rockets.

“At the moment, the entire market is experiencing the next evolutionary step,” says Leininger. “During this phase, H₂O₂ is playing an important role as a propellant because of its excellent handling properties.” Previously, other compounds such as hydrazine and its derivatives were used for this purpose. However, hydrazine is suspected of being carcinogenic, and its use may be banned in the EU in the future. H₂O₂ would be a clean alternative.

A Green Future in Space

When hydrogen peroxide comes into contact with a suitable catalyst, it develops tremendous heat and decomposes to form water vapor and oxygen. Thus H₂O₂ is driving a global trend. Under the banner of “green rocketry,” numerous companies and organizations are now attempting to make space travel more sustainable and more environmentally friendly. In addition to the economic aspects, these are also the goals of the Future Launchers Preparatory Programme (FLPP), in which the European Space Agency (ESA) is researching technologies for the next-but-one generation of rockets.

“From our perspective, environmentally friendly propellants are important,” says Johann-Dietrich Wörner, the Director General of the European Space Agency. Wörner explains that the ESA has been promoting sustainable development on earth for many years and will continue to do so in the future. One step in this direction was made possible by the Hyprogeo project, which was funded by the European Commission as part of the Horizon 2020 framework program for research (funding code: 634534 HYPROGEO). The goal of Hyprogeo was to construct a hybrid rocket engine that burns polyethylene as the solid propellant, using hydrogen peroxide as an oxidant.

“Our task as a project partner was to produce H2O2 that was as highly concentrated as possible,” Leininger explains. For this purpose, Evonik developed a dedicated process that produces H₂O₂ in concentrations of up to 98 percent—a peak value for industrial production. “The actual manufacturing process of H₂O₂ produces a 40 or 50 percent solution, but the subsequent distillation and crystallization processes enable us to reach the desired final concentration,” says Leininger.

Hydrogen peroxide also develops its innovative power in environmental applications such as soil remediation and wastewater purification. In the USA, sewage treatment plants often chlorinate wastewater before channeling it into rivers or lakes. For the past few years, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has been promoting the use of alternative methods of water purification. One of them is the treatment of wastewater with H₂O₂ or peracetic acid (PAA). This is an environmentally friendly solution, because the only byproducts of these two peroxides are water and acetic acid, which is readily biodegradable.

The peroxides, which are strong oxidizing agents, combat the pathogenic organisms in the wastewater. Viruses, bacteria, and other microbes are killed via non-specific mechanisms of action. “The peroxides penetrate the cell envelope of microorganisms and change it so that it loses its barrier function,” says Leininger, the expert from Evonik. In addition, the enzymes in the cell’s interior are oxidized and thus irreversibly damaged. Both of these processes cause a breakdown of the cell’s metabolism.

PAA has proved to be an especially potent disinfectant. It requires only a hundredth of the corresponding dose of H₂O₂ to achieve a comparable effect. “PAA can penetrate the cell membrane especially easily because of the lipophilic properties of the acetyl part of the molecule,” Leininger explains. In addition, PAA—unlike H₂O₂—cannot be decomposed by a special enzyme called microbial catalase. As a result, no resistance mechanisms against PAA have been discovered to date.

Peroxide Power at Home

Hydrogen peroxide and electric current have had a close relationship for a long time. The Weißenstein process for producing H₂O₂ on an industrial scale, which was invented more than 100 years ago, is based on electrolysis. But hydrogen peroxide’s versatility isn’t limited to the aerospace industry or wastewater treatment. In fact, it can be a powerful cleaning agent right in your own home.

At Adam Cleaning, we swear by the power of hydrogen peroxide. Not only is it a fantastic disinfectant that can kill off nasty germs and bacteria, but it’s also a gentle yet effective cleaner that won’t damage surfaces. Plus, it’s completely natural and eco-friendly – no harsh chemicals here!

I remember one time when a client called us in a panic because their kids had spilled red wine all over their brand new white carpet. They were convinced the stain was permanent and that they’d have to replace the whole carpet. But I knew just the trick – a simple solution of hydrogen peroxide and water did the trick, lifting that stubborn stain right out without a trace. The clients were amazed, and needless to say, they’ve been loyal customers ever since.

Hydrogen peroxide is also great for cleaning tiles, grout, and even getting that pesky mold and mildew out of those hard-to-reach spots. And the best part? It’s so gentle that you don’t have to worry about it damaging or discoloring any surfaces. It’s truly a cleaning powerhouse that every household should have on hand.

So next time you’re tackling a tough cleaning job, remember the magic of hydrogen peroxide. It may just save you from having to replace that expensive new carpet or tile. And who knows, it might even help you blast off into the stars, just like the Soyuz rocket we saw take flight. The possibilities are endless with this incredible compound!

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