a start-up will send rockets into space powered entirely by cow dung

As negotiations enter the very final stretch at COP28, Japanese scientists are proposing to reduce their country’s greenhouse gas emissions by better recycling waste on their farms.


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Takahiro Inagawa, CEO of satellite launch startup Interstellar Technologies, after testing a biomethane-powered rocket engine, in the company's control room in Hokkaido, December 7, 2023. (PHILIP FONG / AFP)

Japanese scientists want to make fuel from only an abundant local source: cow dung. One company is even starting to test a rocket engine, which would be powered only by this fuel. This company is called Interstellar Technologies and, at the beginning of December, tested a first rocket engine powered solely by gas created behind the country’s large farms.

Hokkaido, a large island in the far north of Japan, is a fairly rural region where large dairy cow farms are grouped together in farms of nearly a thousand animals. A thousand cows emit a lot of greenhouse gases. The famous methane, which is formed during the process of rumination and escapes mainly through burps, is difficult to capture and use. But the 40 tonnes of dung, which are also produced every day, also contain methane. This gas, this time, can be recovered and transformed into fuel. Useful energy for heating villages, running car engines and now, perhaps, sending rockets into space.

Rockets for small satellites

Transformation is a process specific to biogas. In the stables, pits collect cow dung and urine. These excrement are sent to what is called a methanizer. It is a large closed tank where machines mix the different elements at a constant temperature to ferment them. This action activates bacteria, which degrade materials by releasing CO2 and methane. The methane is then recovered to make fuel. Then it is purified, compressed and liquefied to make biomethane, a liquid which can be used in rocket engines.

In Hokkaido, the Air Water company manufactures this liquid biomethane based on cow dung. She assures that it is almost as efficient as conventional rocket fuel today. Interstellar Technologies has announced that it will use this cheap fuel on its new rocket which it has named Zero. It is a 25 meter high rocket, which was designed to put small satellites, not too heavy, into orbit, for countries or companies that could not afford the services of large traditional launchers. .

Normally, the first Zero rocket will be launched from Hokkaido in 2025.

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