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Flow Measurement and Instrumentation 17 (2006) 93–97

Passive flow control in liquid-propellant rocket engines with

cavitating venturi
A. Ulas ∗
Department of Mechanical Engineering, Middle East Technical University, Ankara 06531, Turkey

Received 22 August 2005; received in revised form 3 October 2005; accepted 14 October 2005


In a companion liquid rocket engine development project, due to the overall weight constraint of the propulsion system, a cavitating venturi is
selected to control the liquid fuel and liquid oxidizer mass flow rates. Two cavitating venturis, one for the fuel and the other for the oxidizer, are
designed to deliver the desired mass flow rates for a specified operating inlet pressure, temperature, and inlet cross-sectional area. The converging
and diverging angles of the venturis are selected from the literature for minimum pressure losses. An experimental setup is designed to verify
that the cavitating venturis can deliver the specified flow rates. Two different techniques are used to pressurize the system: in the first method,
pressurized nitrogen gas is used, and in the second method, high pressure combustion gases generated from a solid propellant gas generator are
used. Transient mass flow rates could not be measured using standard methods due to the short duration of the water tests; instead, average mass
flow rates are calculated. The results verify that the designed cavitating venturis can indeed provide the desired mass flow rates.
c 2005 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.

Keywords: Cavitating venturi; Choked flow; Passive flow control; De Laval nozzle

1. Introduction oxidizer since it is lighter and cheaper than the active control
systems for the same flow rate and inlet pressure, and more
The control of liquid flow rates has been classically made importantly, at constant inlet pressures, it can provide accurate,
by active control systems, which generally have a remote- constant, and stable flow rates without being affected by the
controlled valve, a flowmeter, and a control unit (e.g., a pressure dynamics in the rocket engine.
computer). During the operation, the computer continuously A cavitating venturi maintains a constant mass flow rate
monitors the flow rate with the flowmeter and if the level of at a specified upstream condition as long as the downstream
the flow rate is not within the acceptable range, the flow rate pressure remains below a critical value. When the downstream
is adjusted with the remote-controlled valve. Active control pressure is higher than the critical value, unchoking and
systems are expensive and heavy; in addition, their response overflow phenomena are observed [3]. This critical pressure
time is long. is about 85%–90% of the upstream pressure [4]. According
In rocket propulsion systems with very tight weight to Liou et al. [3], unchoking and overflow become important
limitations, the flow control device should be light, reliable, and for applications with small flow rates, very small sizes, low
besides it should not be influenced from the pressure dynamics pressure difference across cavitating venturis (40–125 kPa), and
in the rocket motor. very low inlet subcooling (40–140 kPa) (pressure difference
A cavitating venturi, a passive flow control technique, has between the inlet pressure and the saturation pressure at the
been employed in many liquid rocket engines developed in inlet temperature). The operating conditions are, however, quite
space programs since the 1960’s [1,2]. In this study, a cavitating different in liquid rocket engines, which have high mass flow
venturi is selected to control the flow rates of the fuel and the rates and high inlet subcooling (on the order of 5000–10 000
kPa), making unchoking and overflow less likely to occur.
∗ Tel.: +90 312 210 5260; fax: +90 312 210 1266. The cavitation gives rise to undesirable effects to most fluid
E-mail address: machinery because of its erosive nature. However, cavitating

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c 2005 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.
94 A. Ulas / Flow Measurement and Instrumentation 17 (2006) 93–97

venturis used in rocket engine applications are not significantly In the liquid rocket engine, two cavitating venturis are
affected from these effects since they have relatively short test required: one for the liquid fuel and another for the liquid
durations and are made of harder materials [4]. To characterize oxidizer. However, during the experimentation stage, water is
the cavitational flow and its destructions to fluid devices, the used to verify that the designed cavitating venturi provides the
location of onset of cavitation and the cavitation collapse required constant flow rate.
should be determined. Ishii and Murakami [5] investigated In the design calculations of the cavitating venturi, thermo-
experimentally the cavitation of liquid helium in a cavitating physical properties of water are used. The required design
venturi with a rectangular cross section. High-speed video parameters for the cavitating venturi are inlet diameter, throat
camera pictures indicate that the flow separation takes place diameter, and converging–diverging angles. The inlet diameter
at the exit of the throat. Kumar and Pandit [6] state that the is chosen to be equal to the inner diameter of the inlet pipe in
cavitation starts near the throat at high cavitation numbers, the liquid rocket engine (i.e., the inner diameter of a 25 cm pipe
whereas cavities are generated at locations far from the throat in is about 22 cm).
the downstream of the venturi at very low cavitation numbers. By writing the Bernoulli equation between the free surface
Their study also shows that high-intensity cavitation occurs at of the water in the tank and the throat of the cavitating venturi,
high inlet pressure P1 and downstream pressure P2 , whereas and neglecting the free-surface velocity, the mass flow rate can
low-intensity cavitation occurs at low P1 and P2 . Jarman and be written as
Taylor [7] observed light emission during the cavitating flow 
ṁ = At 2(Pi − Pt )ρ (1)
of water in a venturi. The shock generated downstream of
the throat by the collapsing vaporous cavities is the source where Pi is the pressure in the tank, Pt the pressure at the
of the light. The emission mechanism is thermal, which is throat, and At the throat area. The oxidizer tank pressure and
the incandescence resulting from adiabatic compression of the liquid oxidizer mass flow rate are calculated as 100 bar
the contents of the cavity. A numerical method developed and 14.4 kg/s, respectively, in a previous study [12]. In the
by Preston et al. [8] identifies four different flow regimes of testing of the cavitating venturi, the water tank pressure (Pi )
bubbly cavitating flows through converging–diverging nozzles and the water mass flow rate are also taken as 100 bar and
depending on the value of the back pressure. When the back 14.4 kg/s. In order to have cavitation at the venturi throat, the
pressure is lowered, the flow becomes choked, and a steady throat pressure (Pt ) must be less than the water vapor pressure
bubbly shock wave forms in the diverging section of the nozzle. (which is 2.339 kPa at 20 ◦ C). If these values are inserted in the
The shock wave moves downstream as the back pressure is above equation, the throat area and the throat diameter can be
lowered further. found as 101.4 mm2 and 11.3 mm, respectively.
The objective of this study is to design, manufacture, and test In the literature, the cavitating venturi manufacturers [10]
a cavitating venturi to be used for the flow control in a liquid- recommend a diverging angle of 7◦ for minimum pressure
propellant rocket engine. In order to verify the reliability and losses. In this study, this value is adopted; also the converging
the accuracy of the venturi, a test setup is also designed and a angle is taken as 15◦, which is commonly used in the previ-
testing methodology is developed. ous studies. Fig. 1 shows the design drawings of the cavitating
2. Design of cavitating venturi
3. Experimental setup

It is well known that the flow control of a compressible 3.1. Tests with pressurized nitrogen gas
fluid can be achieved using a converging–diverging De Laval
nozzle. At constant inlet pressures and when the flow is choked An experimental setup is designed and manufactured to ver-
at the throat, it is impossible to obtain more mass flow from ify that the designed cavitating venturi can supply constant flow
the system by reducing the downstream pressure. Based on a rates at constant inlet pressures and temperatures. Fig. 2 shows
similar procedure, it is physically possible to control the flow the schematic of this setup. The setup has the following compo-
rates of incompressible fluids. When the static pressure is lower nents: a water tank with 3.5 L of internal volume, the cavitating
than the vapor pressure of the liquid, a very rapid transition venturi, hand valves, gas tanks, and a nitrogen gas bottle.
from liquid to gas phase occurs in the flow [9]. During this Pressurized nitrogen gas is used to test the system at any
phase change, there is a dramatic increase in the volume of desired pressure. In the early test runs, standard 230 bar
the fluid, which constricts the flow, and a choked flow regime nitrogen bottles are used; however, the bottle exit port is not
is obtained. Consequently, for a given inlet pressure condition, large enough to supply necessary nitrogen to discharge the
the flow rate will remain unchanged regardless of downstream water at the desired flow rate. In the subsequent tests, two steel
pressure during this condition. During the flow, if the static gas tanks with larger exit ports and internal volumes (60 L each)
pressure increases beyond the vapor pressure of the liquid, a are employed. The volume of the gas tanks is an important
rapid condensation occurs. Using a venturi like a De Laval parameter for the tests, since the larger the volume of the tanks,
nozzle to cavitate the liquid, constant mass flow rates can be the lower the pressure drop in the gas tanks during the test runs.
obtained when the downstream pressure is less than about 85% For the test at 50 bar, the calculated pressure drop is about 3 bar
of the inlet pressure [1,4,10,11]. if these two tanks are used.
A. Ulas / Flow Measurement and Instrumentation 17 (2006) 93–97 95

Fig. 1. Cut (left) and solid model isometric (right) view of the designed cavitating venturi.

Fig. 2. Schematic of the experimental setup.

Fig. 4. Schematic of the test setup with composite propellant gas generator.

Although this much pressure drop could be considered as

acceptable, other techniques that can provide constant inlet
pressures during the water discharge process are evaluated.
Fig. 3. Schematic of the water tank.
An end-burning solid-propellant gas generator could provide
The water tank is placed downstream of the gas tanks, and constant pressure within the system; therefore, the same tests
the cavitating venturi is connected to the water tank as shown are repeated with composite-propellant gas generator as the
in Fig. 2. A remote-controlled hand valve is installed directly source of pressurizing the system. The schematic of the setup
before (in some tests after) the cavitating venturi. with an end-burning solid-propellant gas generator is shown in
In the early tests, the end of the water flow could not be Fig. 4.
easily located on pressure–time traces because of mixing of In tests with solid-propellant gas generator, a steel water
nitrogen gas with water. In order to prevent the mixing, a tank with a 28 L internal volume is used. The tank is filled
polyamide disc with a dynamic o-ring seal is placed between with 26–27 kg of water before each test. The ignition of the
the nitrogen gas and the water. Fig. 3 shows the arrangement AP/HTPB/Al composite solid propellant is accomplished by
within the water tank. firing an MTV (Magnesium–Teflon–Viton) igniter. As soon as
Before the test, while valve 2 is closed, valve 1 is opened and the pressure inside the system reaches a certain value, the cover
the gas tanks are pressurized to the desired level. Thereafter, plate is ruptured and then the discharge of the water starts. As
valve 1 is closed, valve 2 is opened, and the water tank is shown in Fig. 4, two Kistler pressure transducers are used to
pressurized; at this time valve 3 is still closed. Finally, the record the pressure at two different locations in the tank. The
discharge of the pressurized water starts by opening valve 3 solid-propellant gas generator is designed to provide a mean
remotely. During the tests, the pressure in the water tank is pressure of 80 bar for nearly 2 s.
measured using a high-frequency Kistler transducer. 4. Experimental results and discussion
3.2. Tests with composite propellant gas generator 4.1. Tests with pressurized nitrogen gas

In tests with pressurized nitrogen gas, pressure drops less The testing of the cavitating venturi is first conducted using
than 10% are measured in the tanks during the water discharge. the setup with pressurized nitrogen gas. In Fig. 5, the measured
96 A. Ulas / Flow Measurement and Instrumentation 17 (2006) 93–97

Fig. 5. Pressure–time profile in the water tank for a 50 bar test with pressurized
nitrogen gas.
Fig. 7. Pressure–time profile in the water tank for a 41 bar test with pressurized
nitrogen gas.

pressure–time traces (note: in calculating the test duration, the

cavitation is assumed to begin as soon as the valve is opened),
and (iii) the small leakage of water during the pressurizing of
the tank before the valve is opened.
If the water is not cavitated in the venturi, the water mass
flow rate can be calculated by writing the extended Bernoulli
equation between the free-surface of the water in the tank and
the exit of the venturi.
1 L1
Pi = Pe + ρV 2 + f ρV 2
2 D2
Fig. 6. Enlarged view of Regime II. 1
+ (K entrance + K venturi + K ballvalve) ρV 2 . (2)
pressure–time trace during a test is shown. The water tank is
From Ref. [13], the loss coefficient for a slightly rounded
initially pressurized to 50 bar and the transducer is operated
entrance is given as 0.3, and for a full-open ball valve K =
at 1 kHz. There are three different regimes in these tests as
0.05. By taking the loss coefficient of the venturi the same as the
shown in the figure. In Regime I, the system is pressurized
ball valve loss coefficient, the tank pressure as 50.5 bar, venturi
to 50 bar while hand valve 3 is closed. In Regime II, hand
exit pressure as 1 bar, and neglecting the pipe losses and the
valve 3 is opened and the discharge of the water from the
velocity in the tank, a mass flow rate of 33 kg/s can be found.
cavitating venturi begins. Finally, in Regime III, the flow of
This value is more than 3 times of the experimental average
nitrogen gas continues after all the water is discharged from
mass flow rate. As a conclusion, this experiment proves that
the system. Regime II is the most important regime since water
the water is cavitated in the designed venturi and the venturi is
discharge from the cavitating venturi occurs here. Fig. 6 shows
choked, providing a constant mass flow.
an enlarged view of this regime.
Fig. 7 shows the pressure–time trace obtained from a test
In Fig. 6, hand valve 3 is opened at about 7.025 s and the
conducted at a pressure of 41 bar. The valve is opened at 2.62 s,
water discharge is completed at 7.375 s. Just after the opening
the water discharge is completed at 2.97 s, and a pressure drop
of the valve, a pressure oscillation occurs, which is observed
of 4 bar occurs during the water discharge process. An average
in every test. This oscillation could occur due to a shock wave
mass flow rate of 9.7 kg/s is found by dividing the 3.4 kg of
generated during the instantaneous opening of the valve and due
water mass by the test duration. The calculated mass flow rate
to the start of the water cavitation in the venturi. When the mass
from Eq. (1) is 8.9 kg/s.
of the water in the tank (3.4 kg) is divided by the test duration,
an average mass flow rate of 9.7 kg/s is found. A pressure drop 4.2. Tests with composite propellant gas generator
of nearly 5 bar occurs from the time of valve opening to the end
of the water discharge. Fig. 8 shows a pressure–time trace obtained during a test
If the water is cavitated and choked in the venturi (with with composite propellant gas generator. In this test the
a throat diameter of 11.3 mm), the calculated mass flow rate transducer is operated at 5 kHz.
from Eq. (1) is 9.9 kg/s for an inlet pressure of 50.5 bar. The The time of ignition, the onset and the end of water discharge
calculated value is very close to the measured value of 9.7 kg/s; are indicated in Fig. 8. In addition, the calculated instantaneous
this indicates that the water is indeed choked in the venturi. water mass flow rate and the mass of water discharged from the
The difference between the two values could be due to several venturi are presented in this figure.
reasons, such as: (i) the pressure drop during the test, (ii) the A long ignition delay is observed from the onset of the
uncertainty in the determination of the onset of cavitation on the igniter until the attainment of the operating pressure of 60 bar.
A. Ulas / Flow Measurement and Instrumentation 17 (2006) 93–97 97

combustion gases generated from a composite propellant gas

generator are used. From the recorded pressure–time traces
during the water tests, the onset and the end of water
discharge from the cavitating venturi are located and the time
difference between these two is taken as the test duration. The
experimental results, such as the average water mass flow rate
and the total amount of water discharged, are compared with
the theoretical results and it is verified that the water is cavitated
in the venturi and the cavitating venturi can maintain constant
mass flow rates for constant inlet conditions.


This project is financed by the Defense Industry Research

and Development Institute of the Scientific and Technical
Fig. 8. Pressure–time profile in the water tank for a test with composite
propellant gas generator.
Research Council of Turkey. The author would like to thank
Dr. M.A. Ak, Mr. C. Yıldırım, Mr. D.E. Gündüz, and Mr.
This operating pressure is lower than the design value. The G. Püskülcü for their assistance during the tests.
reason for this unpredictable long ignition delay and the low
operating pressure is most probably the boiling of water due to References
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