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posted by Fnord666 on Monday February 05 2018, @02:45PM   Printer-friendly [Skip to comment(s)]
from the things-that-go-up-[in-flames] dept.

It's rare that the forthcoming publishing of a book fills me with excitement and anticipation. Doubly rare when said book has been out of print for decades. Elon Musk may have popularized the term RUD (Rapid Unscheduled Disassembly), but his experiences can barely hold a candle to the tales told by John D Clark, author of Ignition! An Informal History of Liquid Rocket Propellants. Read on for the scoop from Ars Technica:

Often hilarious, always informative, this history of rocket science is a must-read.

It's rare that a book about as high-minded and serious a topic as rocket science manages to be both highly informative and laugh-out-loud funny. But if there's a better way to describe John Clark's Ignition!, I've yet to discover it. A cult classic among chemists, many of the rest of us discovered the book via one of Derek Lowe's tales of hilariously scary chemicals.

[...] Rutgers University Press has decided to dust it off and reissue it. From May it will finally be possible to put a physical copy on one's bookshelf. And honestly, if you've got any interest in chemistry—particularly the branch of it involving violent, energetic, and occasionally explosive reactions—it's a book you need to read.

Ignition! is a history of liquid rocket propellants, but it's also a history of cold war and the space race, told from a particular point of view. Clark was the chief chemist at a rocket lab in New Jersey, operated first by the US Navy, then US Army. He was a central figure in what was a relatively small field, one with a definite purpose. This wasn't science just for science's sake, but a quest to find new oxidizers and fuels for rocket engines, to make better missiles or space probes.

The propellants being asked for would have to be liquids throughout a range of temperatures, and preferably completely innocuous and easily stored until reacting violently together upon combination. However, if you guessed that many of the chemicals suitable for energetic reactions in a rocket often tend to react energetically in many other situations—often with no provocation at all—Clark's tales of "catastrophic self-disassembly" might not be entirely surprising.

Pricing ranges from $24.95 to $95.00 with pre-orders being accepted now. A PDF is available on February 14th; other formats and a reduced-price PDF is available on May 15th.

Read on for a sample passage from Chapter 6 of Ignition!:

While all of this was going on there were a lot of people who were not convinced that peroxide, or acid, or nitrogen tetroxide was the last word in storable oxidizers, nor that something a bit more potent couldn't be found. An oxygen-based oxidizer is all very well, but it seemed likely that one containing fluorine would pack an impressive wallop. And so everybody started looking around for an easily decomposed fluorine compound that could be used as a storable oxidizer.

[...] Chlorine trifluoride, ClF3, or "CTF" as the engineers insist on calling it, is a colorless gas, a greenish liquid, or a white solid. It boils at 12° (so that a trivial pressure will keep it liquid at room temperature) and freezes at a convenient -76°. It also has a nice fat density, about 1.81 at room temperature.

It is also quite probably the most vigorous fluorinating agent in existence—much more vigorous than fluorine itself. Gaseous fluorine, of course, is much more dilute than the liquid ClF3, and liquid fluorine is so cold that its activity is very much reduced.

All this sounds fairly academic and innocuous, but when it is translated into the problem of handling the stuff, the results are horrendous. It is, of course, extremely toxic, but that's the least of the problem. It is hypergolic with every known fuel, and so rapidly hypergolic that no ignition delay has ever been measured. It is also hypergolic with such things as cloth, wood, and test engineers, not to mention asbestos, sand, and water — with which it reacts explosively. It can be kept in some of the ordinary structural metals — steel, copper, aluminum, etc. — because of the formation of a thin film of insoluble metal fluoride which protects the bulk of the metal, just as the invisible coat of oxide on aluminum keeps it from burning up in the atmosphere. If, however, this coat is melted or scrubbed off, and has no chance to reform, the operator is confronted with the problem of coping with a metal-fluorine fire. For dealing with this situation, I have always recommended a good pair of running shoes. And even if you don't have a fire, the results can be devastating enough when chlorine trifluoride gets loose, as the General Chemical Co. discovered when they had a big spill.

[...] It happened at their Shreveport, Louisiana, installation, while they were preparing to ship out, for the first time, a one-ton steel cylinder of CTF. The cylinder had been cooled with dry ice to make it easier to load the material into it, and the cold had apparently embrittled the steel. For as they were maneuvering the cylinder onto a dolly, it split and dumped one ton of chlorine trifluoride onto the floor. It chewed its way through twelve inches of concrete and dug a three-foot hole in the gravel underneath, filled the place with fumes which corroded everything in sight, and, in general, made one hell of a mess. Civil Defense turned out, and started to evacuate the neighborhood, and to put it mildly, there was quite a brouhaha before things quieted down. Miraculously, nobody was killed, but there was one casualty — the man who had been steadying the cylinder when it split. He was found some five hundred feet away, where he had reached Mach 2 and was still picking up speed when he was stopped by a heart attack.


Original Submission

Related Stories

In The Pipeline: Coronavirus 45 comments

https://blogs.sciencemag.org/pipeline/archives/2020/01/27/coronavirus

As the world knows, we face an emerging virus threat in the Wuhan coronavirus (2019-nCoV) outbreak. The problem is, right now there are several important things that we don't know about the situation. The mortality rate, the ease of human-human transmission, the rate of mutation of the virus (and how many strains we might be dealing with – all of these need more clarity. Unfortunately, we've already gone past the MERS outbreak in severity (which until now was the most recent new coronavirus to make the jump into humans). If we're fortunate, though, we'll still have something that will be worrisome, but not as bad as (say) the usual flu numbers (many people don't realize that influenza kills tens of thousands of people in the US each year). The worst case, though, is something like 1918, and we really, really don't need that.

[Ed note: The linked story is by Derek Lowe who writes a "commentary on drug discovery and the pharma industry". He is perhaps best known for his "Things I Won't Work With" blog entries which are as hilarious as they are... eye opening. I have found him to be a no-nonsense writer who "tells things as they are", holding no punches. The whole story is worth reading as he clearly explains what a coronavirus is, about the current one that reportedly originated in Wuhan, China, what could be done about it, how long that would likely take, and what can be done for those who have already been infected. --martyb]

Previous Stories Referencing Derek Lowe:

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  • (Score: 3, Funny) by YeaWhatevs on Monday February 05 2018, @03:19PM (5 children)

    by YeaWhatevs (5623) on Monday February 05 2018, @03:19PM (#633291)

    If you're like me, you already bought a cheap used copy for about three bucks.

    • (Score: 2) by bob_super on Monday February 05 2018, @05:37PM (2 children)

      by bob_super (1357) on Monday February 05 2018, @05:37PM (#633346)

      And DO go read the linked Derek Lowe blog. It's both highly informative and NSFW for excessive laughing.
      The one about FOOF is probably my favorite (already [posted it at least once here)

      • (Score: 4, Funny) by lgw on Monday February 05 2018, @11:00PM (1 child)

        by lgw (2836) on Monday February 05 2018, @11:00PM (#633514)

        FOOF doesn't hold a candle to ClF3. From Ignition!

        All this sounds fairly academic and innocuous, but when it is translated into the problem of handling the stuff, the results are horrendous. It is, of course, extremely toxic, but that's the least of the problem. It is hypergolic with every known fuel, and so rapidly hypergolic that no ignition delay has ever been measured . It is also hypergolic with such things as cloth, wood, and test engineers, not to mention asbestos, sand, and water —with which it reacts explosively ... For dealing with this situation, I have always recommended a good pair of running shoes.

        Basically, a large ClF3 spill (and this has happened) simply burns downward towards the center of the Earth through anything in its way until it's completely reacted. There's just a crater where the floor and safety equipment used to be.

        It happened at their Shreveport, Louisiana, installation, while they were preparing to ship out, for the first time, a one-ton steel cylinder of CTF. The cylinder had been cooled with dry ice to make it easier to load the material into it, and th e cold had apparently embrittled the steel. For as they were maneuvering the cylinder onto a dolly, it split and dumped one ton of chlorine trifluoride onto the floor. I t chewed its way through twelve inches of concrete and dug a three foot hole in the gravel underneath, filled the place with fumes which corroded everything in sight, and, in general, made one hell of a mess. Civil Defense turned out, and started to evacuate the neighborhood, and to put it mildly, there was quite a brouhaha before things quieted down. Miraculously, nobody was killed, but there was one casualty — the man who had been steadying the cylinder when it split. He was found some five hundred feet away, where he had reached Mach 2 and was still picking up speed when he was stopped by a heart attack.

        • (Score: 2) by bob_super on Monday February 05 2018, @11:30PM

          by bob_super (1357) on Monday February 05 2018, @11:30PM (#633531)

          Both are hilariously scary. Extract from FOOF [sciencemag.org]:

          And he’s just getting warmed up, if that’s the right phrase to use for something that detonates things at -180C (that’s -300 Fahrenheit, if you only have a kitchen thermometer). The great majority of Streng’s reactions have surely never been run again. The paper goes on to react FOOF with everything else you wouldn’t react it with: ammonia (“vigorous”, this at 100K), water ice (explosion, natch), chlorine (“violent explosion”, so he added it more slowly the second time), red phosphorus (not good), bromine fluoride, chlorine trifluoride (say what?), perchloryl fluoride (!), tetrafluorohydrazine (how on Earth. . .), and on, and on. If the paper weren’t laid out in complete grammatical sentences and published in JACS, you’d swear it was the work of a violent lunatic. I ran out of vulgar expletives after the second page. A. G. Streng, folks, absolutely takes the corrosive exploding cake, and I have to tip my asbestos-lined titanium hat to him.

    • (Score: 3, Informative) by richtopia on Monday February 05 2018, @08:35PM (1 child)

      by richtopia (3160) Subscriber Badge on Monday February 05 2018, @08:35PM (#633413) Homepage Journal

      I also see it on Archive.org if you don't need a dead tree form.

      https://archive.org/details/ignition_201612 [archive.org]

      • (Score: 3, Interesting) by pdfernhout on Tuesday February 06 2018, @05:46AM

        by pdfernhout (5984) on Tuesday February 06 2018, @05:46AM (#633653) Homepage

        Thanks! Around 2000, at a SSI Space Manufacturing Conference, I spoke with two older guys from NASA who bemoaned how NASA could not get many good rocket scientists anymore because, essentially, kids had no experience playing with explosives like they used to on farms such as using dynamite to blast apart big rocks. Kids also had little experience playing with real chemistry sets anymore. So, NASA no longer had a pipeline of incoming recruits with some sense of how to handle rocket propellants. Maybe that can be taught later, but it takes a while -- and perhaps with rarely quite the same results. Of course, NASA did not have to pay the personal price of all those kids with missing eyes and fingers or worse.

        In my high school, a year or two before I went there circa 1980, in the JETS club (Junior Engineering Technical Society), the members had made plans and maybe bought stuff to build a small liquid fueled rocket (that the teacher/adviser pointed out could have hit an airplane). The club got shut down because of that -- to become the safer-seeming computer club it was when I joined.

        So, that all explains a lot about why the NASA can't get it up anymore but we have tremendously good (and even educational) video game fantasies about space exploration like Kerbal Space Program and Elite: Dangerous. Obligatory xkcd on KSP: https://xkcd.com/1356/ [xkcd.com]

        See also: https://www.ted.com/talks/gever_tulley_on_5_dangerous_things_for_kids [ted.com]
        "At TED U, Gever Tulley, founder of the Tinkering School, spells out 5 dangerous things you should let your kids do -- and why a little danger is good for both kids and grownups."

        October Sky: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/October_Sky [wikipedia.org]

        And on where computers used out of greed and fear instead of generosity and joy seem to be taking us before we even get to 2001 / HAL, "The Human Operators", "Manna", or "With Folded Hands":
        "Slaughterbots"
        https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HipTO_7mUOw [youtube.com]

        We hoped in the 1980s that computers would free us (e.g. The Skills of Xanadu) -- sad to see how much they are being used to addict and even enslave us. Maybe it's still not too late?
        "The skills of Xanadu" by Theodore Sturgeon
        https://archive.org/details/pra-BB3830.08 [archive.org]

        Some of my own ideas for bringing Space and Computers together from decades ago:
        http://pdfernhout.net/princeton-graduate-school-plans.html [pdfernhout.net]
        http://www.kurtz-fernhout.com/oscomak/ [kurtz-fernhout.com]

        --
        The biggest challenge of the 21st century: the irony of technologies of abundance used by scarcity-minded people.
  • (Score: 1) by starvingboy on Monday February 05 2018, @03:30PM (4 children)

    by starvingboy (6766) on Monday February 05 2018, @03:30PM (#633295)

    Yep, it's a good read, right up there with the Richard Feynman books. I'm pretty sure there are PDF's out there you can read while looking busy at work.

    • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Monday February 05 2018, @03:52PM (3 children)

      by Anonymous Coward on Monday February 05 2018, @03:52PM (#633304)

      Are you advocating theft against employers? You are the reason we haven't colonized the galaxy yet.

      • (Score: 3, Insightful) by Hartree on Monday February 05 2018, @05:41PM

        by Hartree (195) on Monday February 05 2018, @05:41PM (#633349)

        I'd rate that the politicians who don't provide steady funding and change the mission based on who won the last election are far more to blame than someone reading a PDF on company time.

      • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Monday February 05 2018, @09:11PM (1 child)

        by Anonymous Coward on Monday February 05 2018, @09:11PM (#633437)

        Haha, riiiight. So the every ballooning number of billionaires is actually the opposite? The rich simply can't scrape up enough money to invest in space flight? That is the reason????

        I'm really hoping your comment was sarcastic, "/s" tags are mandatory these days with all the wackos and bots running around.

        • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday February 06 2018, @03:00AM

          by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday February 06 2018, @03:00AM (#633603)

          Jonathan Swift didn't need an '/s', and neither does anybody else.

  • (Score: 4, Informative) by VanessaE on Monday February 05 2018, @03:56PM

    by VanessaE (3396) <vanessa.e.dannenberg@gmail.com> on Monday February 05 2018, @03:56PM (#633305) Journal

    https://xkcd.com/1133/ [xkcd.com]

    Seriously, I'm surprised this wasn't at least alluded to in the summary.

  • (Score: 4, Interesting) by Hartree on Monday February 05 2018, @05:39PM

    by Hartree (195) on Monday February 05 2018, @05:39PM (#633347)

    The university I work at has access to the ebook form of this. I read the first few chapters instead of watching the Superbowl, and the joy of Philly notwithstanding, I enjoyed it far more than I would have enjoyed the game.

    This is a good read(tm). Highly recommended.

    It shows just how much of our engineering is often trying every possible thing and writing down what happens, interspersed with the occasional grand insight. Everything looks obvious in hindsight, but it certainly wasn't. The story of the rocket fuels that (being a child of the 60s) I just took for given and how much of a pain they were to get right fascinates me.

    At points while reading it, I'd think "Well, of course you just use UDMH and nitrogen tetroxide", but in truth I'd had little idea WHY you'd just use that combination (or one of the other well known recipes of today) and all the trouble you could run into if you didn't.

  • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Monday February 05 2018, @07:44PM (1 child)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday February 05 2018, @07:44PM (#633400)

    Suggestions...

    Fuel should be cyclopropane or cubane.

    Oxidizer should be tetranitromethane.

    • (Score: 2) by Rich on Tuesday February 06 2018, @12:15AM

      by Rich (945) on Tuesday February 06 2018, @12:15AM (#633552) Journal

      Like this?

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Syntin [wikipedia.org]

      Appeared to be rather uneconomic in the end. Cuban was said be run by the Ferrari F1 team before the designer fuels were outlawed after the refueling mechanics started to die off. Even more expensive than the other stuff: I once read that it was around 200 bucks per liter. If you like the combination of motor sports and insane fuels, read up on the use of hydrazine in drag racing in the '60s. https://euclidsbridge.wordpress.com/2011/11/21/drag-racing-pioneers-or-suicidal-nutjobs/ [wordpress.com]

      On odd chemicals, I used to wonder how the Nazi scientists came up with the hypergolic fuels for the late war SAM projects ("Tonka"), but Ignition! has a nice writeup of that :)

  • (Score: 2) by tibman on Monday February 05 2018, @07:56PM

    by tibman (134) Subscriber Badge on Monday February 05 2018, @07:56PM (#633401)

    No guest checkout on the Rutgers site : (
    But, i see the same thing on amazon if you already have an account there: https://www.amazon.com/Ignition-Informal-History-Liquid-Propellants/dp/0813599172 [amazon.com]
    Looks like you can get the ebook now but paperback and hardback are released on May 15th.

    --
    SN won't survive on lurkers alone. Write comments.
  • (Score: 2) by VLM on Monday February 05 2018, @09:04PM

    by VLM (445) Subscriber Badge on Monday February 05 2018, @09:04PM (#633428)

    Its a good book about the old days. The book was successful, back when it was only a couple decades old, at convincing me to do a chemistry major. Eventually I figured out that time machines were not going to be deployed anytime soon making the odds of my becoming a 1950s propellant chemist rather low, and of course 99.99% of chemists were doing something much more boring than propellant chemistry. So maybe I should do something electronic, something CS, instead, which I ended up doing.

    Of course there's also Gergel who also has an entertaining autobiography around that era.

    Someday, someone (one of us?) will write a book about how cool it was to be into the linux scene in the early 90s. That's kinda what these chemistry books are like. Its surprising how much "stuff" is invented and engineered in the early days of any industry. Low hanging fruit, etc.

    Aside from the "oh oh" scary compounds, which are interesting but only maybe 1/3 of the book, the book also discusses a lot of the important engineering issues in an entertaining manner. It does no good to deploy a safe-ish propellant if it slowly corrodes its tank until the debris jams the engine turbopump.

    There's a book I can't remember the title of but its something about green smokestacks (the green from borane fuel research, I think?) but google fails to find this rocket chemistry book. That book was good but not as good as Ignition!

  • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday February 06 2018, @01:57AM

    by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday February 06 2018, @01:57AM (#633581)
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