: New: Book Report: Ignition!

It's a book about the history of the development of rocket propellants. I'm not a chemist, but this was still fascinating because it talks about really dangerous stuff. The whole point of rocket propellant is that it blows up real good—when you want it to. But before you've figured out the right mix, it might still blow up real good at the wrong time. And it blows up pretty amazingly, which can be mighty bad news

One way of controlling blowing-up thing is to design a propellant that's a mixture of two chemicals and keep those two chemicals the $&#* apart until you're ready to propel a rocket. Unfortunately, the stuff that tends to be a good "other half" of the mixture, capable of creating a fast reaction is really corrosive acid. So good luck storing that stuff until you're ready to use it. And good luck experimenting with it as you try to find a good rocket propellant—now you're trying to avoid blowing up and dissolving.

In one chapter, we read about attempts to find an oxidizer containing fluorine

...All this sounds fairly academic and innocuous, but when it is translated into the problem of handling [chlorine trifluoride], 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 materials—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. Their salesmen were awfully coy about discussing the matter, and it wasn't until I threatened to buy my RFNA from Du Pont that one of them would come across with the details.

It happened at their Shreveport, Louisiana installation, while they were preparing to ship out, for the first time, a one-ton steel cylinder of [chlorine trifluoride]. 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. As they were maneuvering the cylinder onto a dolly, it split and dumped one ton of chlorine trifluouride 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 that corroded everything in sight, and in general, made one hell of a mess.

Computer nerds can hold our heads up; simulating these reactions instead of requiring experiments can save lives. This book was written back in the early 70s, though, so the computing systems he wrote about were still kind of rough:
All the compilations of thermodynamic data are on punch cards, now, versatile programs, which can handle a dozen or so elements, are on tape, and things are a lot simpler than they were. But the chemical sophistication is still useful, as is a little common sense in interpreting the print-out. As an example of the first, calculations were made for years on systems containing aluminum, using thermodynamic data on gaseous Al2O3 calculated from its assumed structure. And the results didn't agree too well with the experimental performances. And then an inconsiderate investigator proved that gaseous Al2O3 didn't exist.
There's also something for the technical writers, reminding us that it's better to work with one subject matter expert than to work with two; and to avoid working on standards committees, because everyone on the committee's an expert:
Putting a final report together was sometimes something of a Donnybrook. The committee, as might be imagined, was composed of highly self-confident and howlingly articulate individualists, and there were always at least six of us present each of whom considered himself a master of English prose style. Whew!

Tags: book mad science

blog comments powered by Disqus