Out of a small town called Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, just southeast of Montreal, CEO Bachar Elzein and the team at Reaction Dynamics are perfecting rocket science. The rocket company has spent the past five years tinkering away on a hybrid rocket engine propelled by green fuel, one Reaction Dynamics believes will dramatically reduce the cost of launching small satellites — up to the weight of a caribou — into Earth’s orbit.
Amid all of the international competition from Elon Musk’s SpaceX, Rocket Lab in New Zealand, and major government-funded agencies like NASA, where does Reaction Dynamics fit in? In an expansive interview with the Star, Elzein lays out how Reaction Dynamics’ rockets work — and why the company doesn’t even need a sales department.
You’ve been fascinated by rockets since you were a child. How did you go from daydreaming about rockets to running a company like Reaction Dynamics?
It’s a curse and a blessing — I only wanted to build rockets from a very young age. I didn’t want to do anything else. I had a father who was very, very technical. He was an architect by trade, so he was really keen on anything that had to do with engineering. I had the opportunity to achieve my dream in 2011 at Polytechnique Montreal. I joined a group of students whose goal was to build rockets to participate in competitions.
We were very successful. We won an international competition in 2012, literally the first year we started. In 2014, I was the team’s technical lead. Not only did we manage to win, but it was also the first time a non-U.S. university won that competition. We managed to beat universities like MIT, Stanford, Boston U, Yale. You have to understand, those rockets in competitions — they fly for real, they reach high altitude, but they’re subscale models. They’re exceedingly simpler than what you would find at SpaceX and Rocket Lab and such.
What we started doing at the same time was working on hybrid rockets, and I started doing research. I managed to solve a 70-year-old problem in the field of hybrid rocket propulsion where we managed to find a way to make those hybrids run at peak performance for a longer duration — what you need to reach space.
What exactly do you mean by hybrid rockets?
Rocket engines are divided into different classes. It’s pretty straightforward — based on the physical nature of the propellants you are using. A liquid-fuelled rocket engine, typically what companies like SpaceX use, is fuelled by fuels like kerosene or liquid methane, and the oxidizer is liquid as well. Very often, it is liquid oxygen. Then you have solid rocket engines where both the fuel and the oxidizer are solid. Very often, jokingly, I tell people that when you hold an aluminum Coke can or a beer can — this is rocket fuel you’re holding.
A hybrid is a combination of both. More often than not, the fuel will be solid and the oxidizer will be liquid. These engines have the characteristics of both liquid-fuelled and solid rocket engines. Hybrids are much simpler than a liquid-fuelled rocket and safer than a solid one. What we’ve managed to do by innovating and improving the process is also make it more environmentally friendly. That’s something we’re extremely proud of.
What was the 70-year-old problem you mentioned? The hybrid system sounds like the perfect marriage of both rocket systems.
It is. But hybrids will have their own applications. We don’t have the same performance as you get from a liquid-fuelled rocket engine, but that’s OK. It’s not a competition to build the engine with the better performance. We really want to offer access to space at the most affordable cost.
If you’re running a car, for example, you need to have the right quantity of oxygen burning with the right quantity of fuel to ensure you’re burning at this automatic ratio — or close. When you’re running a hybrid rocket engine, you have a shift in your oxidizer-to-fuel ratio due to the nature of the combustion process. We managed to find a way to solve that problem so that our hybrids can run at peak efficiency for longer durations without having a loss of performance.
There are probably hundreds of businesses around the world that are in the space industry …
One hundred and fifty-six to be precise.
We hear about SpaceX and Rocket Lab and NASA. Where does Reaction Dynamics fit in with all of these bigger players?
We stand at the crossroads of that new space industry, but we also use recycled plastics as a fuel. The simplicity of our system means we’re emitting much less carbon dioxide than other companies. Typical liquid-fuelled rocket engines will have anywhere between 2,000 and 5,000 components. Our rocket engines have much, much less than that. So, when you’re able to consolidate and reduce the part count, you’re reducing the manufacturing operations, reducing machining, reducing the amount of energy you need to produce those engines — and that means you’re emitting much less carbon dioxide. There’s a very strong clean-tech aspect to what we do.
We’re a privately-held company. Our goal is to provide services a bit like SpaceX does, but we’re aimed at a different market. The end goal is really to be able to provide a customer with the most value and be able to launch at a cheaper price for the payload they’re launching. Reusability can be a good option, but removing complexity from the system is another solution that can be as elegant.
What market are you aiming at?
For now, we are focusing on the small satellite market — anywhere from, say, 80 to 200 kilos. This is the market we’ll be aiming at for our first launch vehicle. Then, we’ll see. The good thing is the launch technology we have developed and demonstrated scales up really well. Once we have demonstrated orbital capabilities, it’s really up to us to do what we want.
Have you been able to launch one of your rockets into orbit yet?
Not yet. We’re aiming to have a first demonstration launch around the end of this year. As soon as we have that, we’ll be focusing on the orbital vehicle. The rocket engine we’re using for the demonstration we’re having this year is the same rocket engine we will use for the orbital vehicle. That will be a big, big mountain for us because there’s a lot of technical risks that will have been mitigated through that first one.
Correct me if I’m wrong, but it sounds like you’re building your company around being able to make this hybrid rocket work properly, but you haven’t been able to test it yet.
I’ll just make a correction — we test on a weekly basis. We’ve been testing for the past five years. We know exactly that it will work cause we’ve done it before. Those engines are working. It’s not a subscale engine, it’s not a lab-scale engine — it is a full-scale, fully fledged, orbital-class, full-performance rocket engine. It’s been working like a charm. To be very honest, it’s working better than we expected. The next step is taking that engine that works on the ground and have it test-fired during a flight.
Of course, there’s always risk. There’s always some aspect of it when you’re doing something you haven’t done before. But we have the hybrid rocket engine. It works. We test it on a regular basis. You can touch it. You can feel it.
I want to shift to your business model. Are you getting government grants? Are you taking private contracts? This sounds like a brilliant idea, but it also sounds very expensive for you to run.
Indeed, building a rocket company is not that cheap. We’re extremely proud to be able to do what we’re doing as a fraction of what our competitors needed to do to achieve those milestones. The process of test-qualifying an orbital-class rocket engine requires hundreds of millions of dollars. We managed to do it at 1/20th of that. We have a really exceptional team working on what we’re doing, but there are also far fewer components we need to qualify. There’s a lot of complexity we’re taking out of what is needed in a rocket propulsion system. That means there is less R&D work required, there are less salaries, there’s less infrastructure, there’s less risk, less things that — I don’t want to say the expression — but screwing up.
We’ve been extremely proud to receive support from the Canadian Space Agency — financial contributions — and we’re also extremely honoured to be receiving investment from private investors and angel investors in Canada that believe in what we do. Without the Canadian Space Agency and without these investors, we wouldn’t exist. We wouldn’t be doing what we’re doing.
I have not taken a lot of chemistry classes. Your hybrid rocket system uses recycled plastic pellets. I thought burning plastic was toxic. Is that the case?
That’s a good point. When you burn plastic in the rocket engine, you’re feeding that plastic with the proper amount of oxidizer so you’re minimizing your emissions — carbon emissions, toxic emissions, and everything. When you’re burning a plastic bag, it’s getting oxygen from the air. It’s not being fed at high pressure, so you have something that is really emitting a lot of soot, a lot of carbon and a lot of unburned products. You end up having that thick, black smoke that is really not something you can associate with being environmentally friendly.
You want that combustion to be as complete as possible. A rocket is about 90 to 95 per cent propellants. If you’re not burning those propellants at peak efficiency, you’re carrying dead weight with you.
Have you gotten any business interest?
We have close to half a billion dollars in letters of interest from various customers. Half a billion with a “B,” not an “M.” We don’t have a sales team. I’m not the salesperson. I’m more on the technical and engineering side. Whenever people discover what we’re doing, they get really excited because we’re offering a solution that can really make a difference for our customers.
This company has been around since 2017. We’ve been operating for about five years, but we’ve been in stealth mode — really, on purpose. We’re slowly starting to become more visible. We have rocket engines that are fully working. There’s something solid there. It’s not simply an idea or a concept. We have hardware, we’re going to be building a rocket that will fly late this summer. There’s stuff going on.
We didn’t focus much on building sales infrastructures because the market is there. There’s going to be interest. Of course we can debate where the market is migrating and what the best market segment is for what we do — that could be a three-hour discussion on its own. When you can offer the convenience of a dedicated launch for a customer at a price point that’s not very far from what you get on ride-share — this is something that becomes really, really appealing for investors.
One last quick question related to rockets. What is the best rocket launch sequence you’ve ever seen in a movie?
There’s a super cool sequence from a documentary called “When We Left Earth.” I can’t remember the name of the astronaut, but he describes how he felt — shaking on top of a Saturn V during the initial seconds of the launch sequence. Just thinking about it gives me goosebumps. It’s someone who’s flown on a rocket describing everything. You can see these guys spent their whole lives getting to where they’ve been.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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Reaction Dynamics CEO Bachar Elzein speaks with the Star about building a Canadian space company