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posted by martyb on Thursday October 12 2017, @06:26PM   Printer-friendly
from the things-that-go-zoom-and/or-boom dept.

For anyone who enjoys Things I Won't Work With, this is similar craziness in a longer form. I laughed outrageously over numerous incidences.

Dr. Clark retired from rocket research in 1970 and his long-suffering wife was an impetus for him publishing an account of his experience and expertise in 1972. The stated purpose of Ignition - An Informal History of Liquid Rocket Propellants was for people to avoid repeating mistakes. Indeed, if the contents were more widely understood, particularly the three references to O-rings and numerous references to temperature, the Challenger disaster could have been avoided. The chapter on energy density should also be read more widely because, in 1970, LiH was used to start rockets rather than make batteries which, predictably, catch fire. Likewise, if the USAF had heeded Dr. Clark's advice against the disclosure of a particular technique, SS-1 "Scud" missiles may have been less effective against US personnel.

The book provides a brief and functional history of rocket chemistry before it expands massively into Dr. Clark's first-hand knowledge. No attempt is made to explain rocket hardware which can be obtained from numerous other sources. Dr. Clark's personal technical contributions conclude the longest chapter and this concludes within the first half of the book. The remainder of the book is a number of advanced topics which progress after the industry checkpointed with the success combination of RFNA and UDMH.

Dr. Clark's remaining experience is mostly in an adminstrative capacity of running a chemistry laboratory or the practicalities of industrial test standardization. His speciality was the two types of explosive test. He generally avoided compounds which exceeded a cellulose card-gap test from 30 to 35. Compounds which exceeded this or other limits often led to hurried telephone calls to other labs. Unfortunately, this was too late for one chemist who was blinded in one eye and lost four fingers in an avoidable incident. Numerous people were killed or hospitalized. Although researchers rapidly shied away from the most dangerous compounds, this often came too late for one or two people:

RFNA attacks skin and flesh with the avidity of a school of piranhas. (One drop of it on my arm gave me a scar which I still bear more than fifteen years later.) And when it is poured, it gives off dense clouds of NO2, which is a remarkably toxic gas. A man gets a good breath of it, and coughs a few minutes, and then insists that he's all right. And the next day, walking about, he's just as likely as not to drop dead.

Despite such hazards, Dr. Clark was proud of 17 years running a lab with no lost days due to industrial accidents. However, he worked in an environment which was awash with government funding - with up to nine labs known to be working on a trendy topic - and therefore he had the luxury of outsourcing manufacture of toxic salts and mercury compounds.

Some work was deployed in Nike Ajax, Atlas, Titan and Saturn rockets but work was often superceded before a test rocket was fired. Unfortunately, rocket tests reveal very little. A successful test obtains data about exhaust temperature, smoothness of ignition and any unexpected byproducts. Whereas, the most useful data-point from failure was the extent of destruction. Did the engine melt? Was a camera lens merely cracked or smashed to dust? Was a re-inforced test chamber blown out? Metric and US units are used interchangably but a test engine with a 50 pound thrust was deemed unsatisfactory because it was easily gummed and this adversely affected the accuracy of extrapolation. Ignition - An Informal History Of Liquid Rocket Propellants often reads like Mad Men or a scientific B-movie. One test failure involved a test engine shooting 600 foot (200m) in one direction and its baseplate shooting 1400 foot in the opposite direction. While a technician shouted "My God, Doc! What the Hell did you send us this time?", Dr. Clark calmly lit a cigarette and made reference to a cocktail. The book is also gloriously politically uncorrect with Italian, Greek, Jewish and Russian stereotypes. It is also sexist. Secret compounds were named after favorite secretaries. It is completely unaware of environmental concerns beyond unexpected interaction with wildlife. For example, during the development of particularly smelly sulfur compounds:

The odor of these was not so much skunk-like as garlicky, the epitome and concentrate of all the back doors of all the bad Greek restaurants in all the world. And finally he surpassed himself with something that had a dimethylamino group attached to a mercaptan sulfur, and whose odor can't, with all the resources of the English language, even be described. It also drew flies.

CFC-13 gets a passing mention but only in the context of an additive to homogenize ozone fuel. Readers of the book will gain a detailed appreciation of starting, adjusting, stopping and re-starting a rocket. Readers will also gain appreciation of design considerations for JATO, arctic warfare, cruise missiles, SAMs, ICBMs and rockets to various parts of the solar system. Readers will learn why anything outside of CHON [Carbon, Hydrogen, Oxygen, Nitrogen] should be viewed with suspicion and why it is important to recover catalysts in full. Readers will obtain a comparison of liquid, solid, hybrid, reverse hydrid rockets covering WFNA, RFNA, IRFNA, MMH, UDMH, LOX, FLOX, petroleum, diesel, kerosene, ozone, ammonia nitrate, azines and other compounds. Readers will also gain cursory appreciation for nuclear rockets and ion thrusters. The book contain extensive details about starter slugs, hypergolic fluids and fuel additives to reduce viscosity, freezing point, unwanted catalytic conversion, container corrosion, toxic fumes, shock sensitivity and other properties. Viscosity and freezing point is a particular problem when, for example, desirable trinitro molecules form crystal structures due to van der Waals forces.

Gain insight into the historical process of military standards such as JP-1, JP-4 and RP-1. Unlike other chemistry books, readers will also get a feel for the timescale of development; which tasks take a morning, a day, a week, a month or longer. Less than one page on computing explains why scientific users clambered to use ARPANet. GIGO and computer rage were already understood before 1970. However, one punch-card deck for an IBM 360 saved a month or more of slide-rule calculations and was often more precise even if the compounds were fictitious. A summary of Russian and Chinese technology is equally terse yet insightful. Overall, it provides a nuanced snapshot of government and industrial chemical research centered around the Anglosphere from 1950 to 1970.

The mathematics rarely goes beyond logarithms, asymptotes or simultaneous equations. However, advanced topics require an understanding of chemical phase diagrams, bromide catalysis, SF6 solvent and petroleum chemistry which may have fallen out of general circulation. Being a typical chemistry book, there is an extensive glossary and index. This is thankful because acronyms are used with little introduction.

As a test of knowledge gained, I wondered what would be a suitable fuel to power an amateur rocket nowadays. 20 years ago, something akin to JP-4 would be a safe choice but when, for example, the French Government wishes to ban petrol and diesel by 2040, available hydrocarbons may not be widely available even if they remain affordable. I couldn't remember the details but I wondered if acetone, urea or, from the text, methyl methacrylate would be suitable. Indeed they are. CO(CH3)2 [acetone] and CO(NH2)2 [urea] are particularly suitable CHON molecules which are exothermic, react at sensible temperatures and have light, high-velocity byproducts which move out of the way promptly. Unfortunately, reports from the fashion industry indicate that nail varnish is being developed which does not require the use of "toxic" acetone. Next, they'll be extracting the urine.

Ignition is of general interest to armchair pyromaniacs. It is also of interest to boat, car and plane enthusiasts. (Full scale and model scale.) It provides background for many industrial chemical processes including battery technology and two-part plant nutrient. A PDF with SHA512 0d7de74ba4ffbac2aa425c0b203bc14d3aee81b55b8039320156918f736e4d039ef3f0889da9530635f161c2e9dae974eb7c4d92a2150e66e73bd534534cbca4 is widely available.

Original Submission

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  • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Thursday October 12 2017, @06:49PM (1 child)

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday October 12 2017, @06:49PM (#581280)

    Not like it's rocket science! What? Oh.

    • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Thursday October 12 2017, @07:24PM

      by Anonymous Coward on Thursday October 12 2017, @07:24PM (#581300)

      LOx and urine may just work as rocket propellant. A little LOx makes anything burn.

  • (Score: 2) by Freeman on Thursday October 12 2017, @06:55PM (6 children)

    by Freeman (732) on Thursday October 12 2017, @06:55PM (#581286) Journal

    Ignition is of general interest to armchair pyromaniacs.

    But, does it have plenty of pictures of the ignitions?

    "I said in my haste, All men are liars." Psalm 116:11
    • (Score: 2) by bob_super on Thursday October 12 2017, @07:05PM (5 children)

      by bob_super (1357) on Thursday October 12 2017, @07:05PM (#581291)

      Even nuclear tests are available online in slow-mo these days.
      I don't think a book needs to try to compete.

      • (Score: 2) by Freeman on Thursday October 12 2017, @07:08PM (4 children)

        by Freeman (732) on Thursday October 12 2017, @07:08PM (#581294) Journal

        There's nothing quite like a hard copy, though.

        "I said in my haste, All men are liars." Psalm 116:11
        • (Score: 2) by bzipitidoo on Thursday October 12 2017, @10:52PM (3 children)

          by bzipitidoo (4388) on Thursday October 12 2017, @10:52PM (#581410) Journal

          How long, I wonder, will people feel love for hard copies? Digital is so much more searchable and workable. With digital, can crunch pretty much any kind of statistics imaginable. No need for an index. And it takes way less space.

          I was thinking the term "book" is due for retirement. Call these, what, Prose Reviews? Story Reviews?

          • (Score: 1) by khallow on Friday October 13 2017, @01:04PM (1 child)

            by khallow (3766) Subscriber Badge on Friday October 13 2017, @01:04PM (#581721) Journal

            With digital, can crunch pretty much any kind of statistics imaginable.

            Only when the data is present in a form that allows you to do that. Digital books are usually not in a form that allows you to do that.

            • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Friday October 13 2017, @05:43PM

              by Anonymous Coward on Friday October 13 2017, @05:43PM (#581893)

              You can always print it out, then scan it in as jpeg and OCR it. Yep, there's no beating hard-copy.

          • (Score: 2) by Freeman on Monday October 16 2017, @04:33PM

            by Freeman (732) on Monday October 16 2017, @04:33PM (#583044) Journal

            So long as you remember, the exact phrase / word, a digital search would most likely be more efficient. Sometimes, it's just easier to flip through the book to find that quote you sort of remember. If / when, an e-ink device can reasonably re-create that, then I could see the good old hard back copy losing a lot of it's luster. As it is, for pure recreational reading, an e-ink device has a lot going for it compared to physical books. -- I work at a Private Academic Library -- While we have seen huge increases in electronic access to Journal Articles, we've had very little use in electronic books. Professors require a certain amount of book citations and article citations, so there's obviously something that's not quite right regarding e-books.

            "I said in my haste, All men are liars." Psalm 116:11
  • (Score: 5, Interesting) by DECbot on Thursday October 12 2017, @07:14PM (1 child)

    by DECbot (832) on Thursday October 12 2017, @07:14PM (#581297) Journal

    If more books were written like this, scientific literature and history would be commonplace. Clark's insight and wit is throughout the book and much of it is based in the actual chemistry. Formulas and such are laid out bare and not glossed over--and the book is better because of it. If you like reading Derek Lowe's [] posts from the "Things I Won't Work With" category, then you'll love this book.

    cats~$ sudo chown -R us /home/base
    • (Score: 2) by JeffPaetkau on Friday October 13 2017, @12:52AM

      by JeffPaetkau (1465) on Friday October 13 2017, @12:52AM (#581467)

      I agree. This is a fantastic book and well worth the read. The author takes what most would consider mundane and highly technical and tells an interesting story laced with more than its fair share of wit and insight.

  • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Thursday October 12 2017, @07:26PM (5 children)

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday October 12 2017, @07:26PM (#581301)

    it is curious that much effort and "disregard" for danger
    was invested in researching highly combustible/explosive compounds.

    it leads one to believe that the pinnacle of rocket motor design
    must have been reached, and that if ever aliens are encountered that their rocket engines will look 99% the same as ours on earth.
    the big lively discussion between earth-stronau and alien-o-nauts will revolve around which compounds to fill into the tanks that fuel the rocket engine : ]
    "hey that can works, let's not waste time on design and find the most *boom* making fuel instead."

    • (Score: 3, Informative) by takyon on Thursday October 12 2017, @08:15PM (2 children)

      by takyon (881) Subscriber Badge <reversethis-{gro ... s} {ta} {noykat}> on Thursday October 12 2017, @08:15PM (#581322) Journal

      We probably have a century to go before we can make a credible attempt to travel to another star. Now maybe we could have made a desperate attempt to get it done in the 1950s []. But we would have aimed our nuclear bomb powered rocket at the nearest known star without even knowing if it had Earth-sized planets at the time. Finding aliens at the nearest star system seems like an unlikely event.

      If we wait until say, 2150, a lot of technological developments will occur during that time. First of all, if there are any undiscovered rocket fuels that we overlooked during the past few decades, or purposely avoided due to danger, we could simulate their existence using supercomputers. Computers are capable of discovering chemicals and reactions: [] [] []

      So after a century, we will have discovered many new chemicals, "small molecule drugs", proteins, metamaterials, etc. using computers and AI. Maybe even some rocket fuels. My assumption is that parallel alien civilizations would check off such discoveries long before they go interstellar, and that they would not invent aerosol deodorant before the wheel.

      It's also unclear to me that chemical rockets would be the big topic of conversation. To go interstellar, they might use a nuclear fusion rocket, or something more exotic and as-of-yet unproven like EmDrive or a warp drive. At the very least, electric propulsion will need something better than solar panels or the RTGs used on Voyager, Cassini (RIP), New Horizons, etc. If your spacecraft doesn't have on-board nuclear fusion, you should probably hang out in LEO for a few more decades until you get it done.

      That's not to say that a conversation with "peaceful" (friendly) aliens about the development and history of their sciences wouldn't be fascinating. In fact, it would be incredibly interesting to learn how certain events in an alien civilization's history do or do not parallel events that happened on Earth. You can only imagine how many papers would be published analyzing the aliens' history, culture, technological development, etc. You think you get lost clicking on interesting Wikipedia links today, just imagine what it would be like to read the English translation of the aliens' version of Wikipedia. And if there are thousands, millions, billions... of civilizations in the universe, there is that much info waiting to be discovered. Support anti-aging if you even want a tiny chance of getting your alien studies PhD.

      [SIG] 10/28/2017: Soylent Upgrade v14 []
      • (Score: 1, Insightful) by Anonymous Coward on Thursday October 12 2017, @11:30PM (1 child)

        by Anonymous Coward on Thursday October 12 2017, @11:30PM (#581435)

        woah. lengthy reply : ]
        a small point was rather that some (me included) believe that there is a optimal "shape" for every "device" in the universe.
        in the same way, that nature has darwinified animals in water to a certain shape and land animals to another and flying animals, again to another.
        however, darwin applies to living beings and is, so far, limited to this planet, thus we have darwin and "optimal shape" only for this planet and not "universally". two things: living being and limited to this planet.

        for machines and devices there's is no darwinian pressure thus if there's a desire for beauty and efficiency a universally (near) optimal solution will be found. however, if resources are unlimited (or made so by for example by Darwinian pressure by making it scarce for some and "unlimited" for others) no need for a optimal solution is required ...

        so, as a bad (fictional) example, there's no need to improve the combustion engine, because if the resource becomes scarce it will become unlimited(*) only for some ...

        • (Score: 3, Insightful) by takyon on Friday October 13 2017, @12:16AM

          by takyon (881) Subscriber Badge <reversethis-{gro ... s} {ta} {noykat}> on Friday October 13 2017, @12:16AM (#581452) Journal

          I guess another example would be that planets with lower surface gravity have a lower escape velocity and thus would need less powerful rocket fuels in order to send spacecraft into orbit or other destinations. So the aliens could get away with using a cheaper and less efficient rocket fuel.

          Once you get at least orbital, you have options for in-orbit refueling that could extend the range of your spacecraft. Another key factor would be satellites. Earth has a large moon where we could potentially produce rocket fuel, and we could launch from the surface where escape velocity is lower. Some alien exoplanets might not have such a satellite. Other aliens might live on moons orbiting gas giants, offering even more resources relatively close by (not counting the gas giant).

          Compare to the discussion about sodium batteries []. Obviously, the demand for greater energy density is insatiable: a drone with a 2x denser battery at the same weight could have 2x the range. But less dense but very cheap batteries could be more useful for some applications.

          [SIG] 10/28/2017: Soylent Upgrade v14 []
    • (Score: 1, Interesting) by Anonymous Coward on Thursday October 12 2017, @08:16PM

      by Anonymous Coward on Thursday October 12 2017, @08:16PM (#581323)

      There may still be discoveries to be made. The first compound of helium was reported eight months ago. []

    • (Score: 1) by khallow on Friday October 13 2017, @01:29PM

      by khallow (3766) Subscriber Badge on Friday October 13 2017, @01:29PM (#581731) Journal
      Chemical propulsion still has some room for improvement. Current work is in making lower molecular weight reaction products (for example, if you can somehow get more molecular and/or atomic hydrogen in your exhaust stream, you'll have on average a higher exhaust velocity over stuff like water vapor and intact hydrocarbon molecules), removing mass of auxiliary systems (like helium tanks for pressurization and pumping), and increasing the temperature both of the combustion chamber and of the propellant that enters the combustion chamber. In addition, there are add-on systems that could boost exhaust velocity at the expense of more energy (for example, heating exhaust with beamed microwaves).

      But the basic thermodynamics are really close to perfect efficiency for the combustion chamber temperatures that can be supported.
  • (Score: 1, Interesting) by Anonymous Coward on Thursday October 12 2017, @08:10PM

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday October 12 2017, @08:10PM (#581319)

    The Green Flame by Andrew Dequasie is an out-of-print book in the same topic area. It's about the boron fuels project. []

  • (Score: 1, Interesting) by Anonymous Coward on Thursday October 12 2017, @08:25PM

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday October 12 2017, @08:25PM (#581328)

    The summary says "LiH was used to start rockets rather than make batteries which, predictably, catch fire." Lithium hydride isn't used in batteries as the reviewer seems to believe. It's been considered [] as a way to store hydrogen, "but applications have been thwarted by its stability to decomposition."

  • (Score: 3, Interesting) by VLM on Friday October 13 2017, @01:13PM

    by VLM (445) Subscriber Badge on Friday October 13 2017, @01:13PM (#581724)

    The subject line looks like weird spam but I assure you as a teen boy in the 80s/90s this book was 100% successful at encouraging me to put computer and electronic stuff on the back burner for a few years and go to uni as a chemistry major. That lasted until I realized, just like Gergel's memoirs, the past is the past and now is now, and one dude two generations before me having a great career doesn't mean I'd enjoy the modern field at all. In fact I'd probably hate being a modern chemist. So I went back to electronics and computers which I did enjoy.

    I'd theorize that being a chemist is like being in pro sports. If you're that one really lucky guy, you're going to have a happy thrilling life, but almost everyone in the field will not have a happy outcome. At least thats how I saw it circa age 20 when I dumped chemistry and went back to EE/CS stuff I'd been doing since I was a little kid doing ham radio and programming Z80s and stuff.

    I'm just saying this book was very successful at recruiting me, and I'm told, many other chemists. Its a hell of an exciting book if you're 17 or so and trying to pick a major. It really is that good of a book. Or teen boys have that bad of taste in literature. I'll have to re-read it now, being a few decades later, and think about it.