The development of reactive fuel grains for pyrophoric relight of in-space hybrid rocket thrusters

Matthew Wellington Steiner, Purdue University


This study presents and investigates a novel hybrid fuel grain that reacts pyrophorically with gaseous oxidizer to achieve restart of a hybrid rocket motor propulsion system while reducing cost and handling concerns. This reactive fuel grain (RFG) relies on the pyrophoric nature of finely divided metal particles dispersed in a solid dicyclopentadiene (DCPD) binder, which has been shown to encapsulate air-sensitive additives until they are exposed to combustion gases. An RFG is thus effectively inert in open air in the absence of an ignition source, though the particles encapsulated within remain pyrophoric. In practice, this means that an RFG that is ignited in the vacuum of space and then extinguished will expose unoxidized pyrophoric particles, which can be used to generate sufficient heat to relight the propellant when oxidizer is flowed. The experiments outlined in this work aim to develop a suitable pyrophoric material for use in an RFG, demonstrate pyrophoric relight, and characterize performance under conditions relevant to a hybrid rocket thruster. Magnesium, lithium, calcium, and an alloy of titanium, chromium, and manganese (TiCrMn) were investigated to determine suitability of pure metals as RFG additives. Additionally, aluminum hydride (AlH3), lithium aluminum hydride (LiAlH4), lithium borohydride (LiBH4), and magnesium hydride (MgH2) were investigated to determine suitability of metals hydrides as RFG additives or as precursors for pure-metal RFG additives. Pyrophoric metals have been previously investigated as additives for increasing the regression rate of hybrid fuels, but to the author’s knowledge, these materials have not been specifically investigated for their ability to ignite a propellant pyrophorically. Commercial research-grade metals were obtained as coarse powders, then ball-milled to attempt to reduce particle size below a critical diameter needed for pyrophoricity. Magnesium hydride was ball-milled and then cycled in a hydride cycling apparatus to attempt to fracture the particles through hydrogen sorption and thermal stresses. These powders were then tested for pyrophoricity with atmospheric and pure concentrations of oxygen. The TiCrMn powder was chosen as the material for evaluation of propellant performance, and was mixed with DCPD in various weight ratios to determine the required additive loading needed for pyrophoricity of the bulk propellant. Weight percentages of 10, 20, 30, and 50 wt.% TiCrMn were used to evaluate relight capability and propellant performance, and weight loadings of 50, 70, and 90 wt.% TiCrMn were used to evaluate approximate maximum loading possible without rendering the propellant structurally unsound. Propellant tests were conducted in an opposed flow burner apparatus for sub-scale regression rate and relight experiments, and an optically accessible cylindrical combustion chamber (OCC) that allows high speed cameras to record the regressing propellant surface during combustion. Gaseous oxygen (GOX) was used as an oxidizer for all tests due to its ready availability and common use as a hybrid rocket oxidizer. Opposed flow burner experiments are an inexpensive means of rapidly testing various propellant formulations at different conditions, whereas OCC tests are useful for obtaining realistic data on how an RFG would likely operate as part of a propulsion system. Relight in the opposed flow burner was attempted by cycling oxygen and nitrogen flows with carefully timed solenoid valves to initiate and extinguish combustion, and to control the slow diffusion of oxygen to the surface of the propellant, which would render the TiCrMn non-pyrophoric. The opposed flow burner experiments did not conclusively demonstrate the pyrophoric relight capability of the RFG propellant due in part to the persistence of hot spots between oxygen and purge nitrogen cycles, as determined by high-speed imaging in the near infrared range. An opposed flow burner apparatus was then constructed within a vacuum chamber assembly thus preventing atmospheric oxygen from diffusing to the propellant surface, but these tests did not demonstrate pyrophoric relight. Future work is proposed to evaluate the effect of pyrophoric particle size in order to determine the role ignition delay of each particle has in the relight capability of RFGs. OCC experiments were conducted at a low and high GOX mass flux of approximately 150 and 300 kg/s/m2, respectively, at a nominal chamber pressure of 150 psia. Four strand compositions were used: pure DCPD, 30 wt.% pyrophoric TiCrMn powder with average particle diameters of approximately 1-10 microns, 30 wt.% oxidized TiCrMn powder with average particle diameters of approximately 1-10 microns, and 30 wt.% TiCrMn powder with average particle diameters of approximately 1-4 mm. Regression rate was measure by weight loss, average web thickness change at three axial locations on the strand, and through time-resolved tracking of the regressing propellant surface via high speed video. While visual observations suggest that the addition of TiCrMn significantly increases regression rate, initial data do not show a significant trend. Additionally, it is observed that the oxidized TiCrMn strands regress at the same rate as those loaded with pyrophoric TiCrMn, suggesting that erosive burning and heat addition of the added metal may be the cause of the observed increase in regression rate. The data are too sparse to make conclusions about the effect of particle size on regression rate, so further tests are recommended to develop a significant data set for the effect of pyrophoricity and particle size on regression rate. The test article was damaged at the end of the regression rate experimental campaign, which precluded the collection of relight data that was planned for strands loaded with 50 wt.% TiCrMn particles with an average diameter of approximately 1-4 mm. Though further tests are needed to demonstrate pyrophoric relight of an RFG, the current work establishes a baseline for RFG performance and suggests that pyrophoric relight is possible by tailoring the particle size of the pyrophoric metal additive to control heat release and ignition delay.




Pourpoint, Purdue University.

Subject Area

Aerospace engineering

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