Wednesday, August 12, 2015

[Book] Ignition! - John D Clark

There is something extra delightful about a hydrogen fire — its flame is almost invisible in the daylight, and you can easily walk right into one without seeing it. 

Any intimate mixture of a fuel and an oxidizer is a potential explosive. And when they are only separated by a pair of firmly crossed fingers, it is an invitation to disaster.

Crocco knew the dangers, but with a courage which bordered on certifiable lunacy, he started a long series of test firings with nitroglycerine. By some miracle, he managed to avoid killing himself and his team. As he grew old, he reluctantly made do with somewhat less sensitive nitromethane.

Instead of working outdoors, as any sane man would have done, Malina conducted his tests in the building, which was promptly filled with a mixture of methanol and N2O4 fumes. This stuff cleverly converted itself to nitric acid, which rained corrosively on all the expensive machinery in the building. Malina's popularity suffered a vertiginous drop; he and his apparatus and his accomplices were summarily thrown out of the building.

Fluorine might be good, but it's a holy terror to handle.

Ignition delay apparatus varied wildly, the designs being limited only by the imagination of the investigator. The simplest setup consisted of an eyedropper, a small beaker, and a finely calibrated eyeball. 

Most of the Navy work on peroxide was directed toward "super performance" for fighter planes so that when a pilot found six MiG-29 aircraft breathing down his neck he could hit the panic button and perform that complex maneuver known as "getting the hell out of here".

Chlorine Trifluoride is, of course, extremely toxic, but that's the least of the problem. It burns rapidly with every known fuel, and no delay in ignition has ever been measured. It also burns with such things as cloth, wood, asbestos, sand, water — and, not to mention, human beings. And did I mention that when added to water, it produces hydrochloric acid and hydrofluoric acid?For dealing with this chemical, I always recommend a good pair of running shoes. 
There was once a 2-tonne spill of a tank of Chlorine Trifluoride. Miraculously, nobody was killed, but the man who was controlling the tank was found some five hundred feet away, where he had reached a horizontal running speed of Mach 2. 

The rocket people continued working with CTF, but they nevertheless knew enough to be scared to death, and proceeded with a degree of caution appropriate to dental work on a king cobra.

The nature of chemists and of chemistry being what it is, the paths that Germans took were the same ones that Americans and Russians took, just sooner or later. 

Boranes are unpleasant beasts. They ignite spontaneously in the atmosphere, and the fires are remarkably difficult to extinguish. They react with water to form hydrogen, and of course, the reaction is violent. Also, they have a peculiarly repulsive odour and are extremely poisonous in all forms. This collection of properties does not endear them to me, except one: They are also very expensive. 

Combustion product of boron is boron trioxide, B2O3, and it is a thick, glassy liquid. When you have a turbine spinning at 40000 RPM, with clearance between the blades a few thousandths of an inch, and this sticky, viscous liquid deposits on the blades, the rocket engine usually undergoes what the British, with their characteristic mildness, call a "catastrophic self-disassembly." 

The rocket engine test range hadn't been used for several months, and a large colony of bats —yes, bats, Dracula types —had moved in to spend the winter. And when we resumed the engine test, they all came boiling out with their sonar gear fouled up, shaking their heads and pounding their ears. They chose one particular rocket mechanic and decided that it was all his fault. If you have never seen a nervous rocket mechanic being buzzed by nine thousand demented bats and trying to beat them off with a shovel, there is something missing from your experience.


If you enjoyed reading this till now, then the book "Ignition!written by Dr. John D. Clark, is definitely for you. It has many such paragraphs that make you chuckle. But do not let the humour fool you. This book is a comprehensive and serious history of development of liquid rocket propellants. 

After a tongue-in-cheek Forward written by none other than the great Isaac Asimov, Dr. Clark begins with the writings of Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, and experiments by Robert Goddard and Herman Oberth. He then goes on to provide a detailed account of efforts made by various teams from Germany, Britain, USA and Soviet Union to create various rocket propellants and their combinations explored to get the best performance out of rocket engines. 
He narrates stories of rocket engine tests gone awry, and tells us how they came up with funny names for the compounds such as "Penelope", Phyllis" and "Minnie" . 

A note to the reader: This is a highly technical book and it is littered with chemical nomenclature, formulae and reaction sequences. Understanding it completely requires a good knowledge of organic and inorganic chemistry. 

And yet, it still makes for a delightful reading simply because the author has such an engaging writing style. I wish to read more such books in the areas of advanced science and technology. 

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