Development and Performance Characterization of an Advanced Solid Propellant Cast and Cure Process

Chris Karpurk1, Evan Olson,2 and Marjorie Rima3 Arizona State University, Tempe, AZ, 85281

In order to improve upon existing experimental composite rocket propellant performance, members of the ASU rocketry group Daedalus Astronautics developed and began testing on both a new propellant formulation and curing system. Existing casting methods employ hand-packing propellant and then air curing. The new method developed was a vacuum casting system, the Encased Propellant Curing Chamber (EPCC), with the goal of increasing density and consistency of solid rocket motor grains. Initial testing showed that propellant sample densities varied 4.3% from the achievable densities via legacy cast and cure methods. Additionally, a new propellant formulation, Crazy Pants 4 (CP4), was derived with the desire to achieve an increase in burn time and improve castability. Initial testing of the CP4 produced extremely noisy results and further testing is necessary before coherent inferences can be made.

Nomenclature
EPCC HDPE r a P n CATO = = = = = = = encased propellant curing chamber high density polyethylene regression rate temperature coefficent pressure burn rate exponent catastrophic failure

A

I. Introduction

S Daedalus Astronautics moves into more ambitious rocketry, a certain level of progression in propellant quality is required. The introduction of EPCC is the latest maturation in this endeavor. The legacy propellant production process used by Daedalus did not provide the desired consistency. High levels of direct human involvement create a source of random error and the utilization of EPCC seeks to ameliorate this. By using the EPCC, successive rocket motors will be more quality controlled in density, homogeneity, and curing conditions. Upon a successful final design, EPCC will produce a better motor with overall improvements in structure, regression rate, geometry, and ultimately a lower motor fail rate. The track record for Daedalus experimental rocket motors is already excellent, but integrating EPCC will ensure this trend continues as the rocket applications become larger and more significant from a scientific and engineering standpoint. The projected map for the future of Daedalus Astronautics includes achieving higher altitudes, implementing hybrid rocket motors in staging applications, and aiming to guarantee over 95% successful launch rate potential for smaller rockets (used especially for educating younger student members and testing scaled prototypes of larger rockets). The implementation of the EPCC will also help to forward the “Daedalus Way” of being at the forefront of collegiate-level experimental rocketry. The use of a curing chamber for making solid rocket motors with exemplary performance is not a new idea. The benefits seen by other rocket groups have been substantial; the result is a more controlled curing process and an environment that is more conducive to the science of
1 2

Undergraduate Student, Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, AIAA Student Member Undergraduate Student, Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, AIAA Student Member 3 Undergraduate Student, Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, AIAA Student Member

but keeping the propellant stored in a high temperature environment becomes detrimental2. mainly concerning the quality of the grain. The first EPCC consisted of an aluminum tube. 6” in diameter that was TIG welded to an aluminum base plate. it was found that mixing and casting propellant at temperatures between 145-150°F ensures good flow characteristics. research was done into how to best cast it. Additionally. A third port was machined to serve as the propellant fill port. This is also known as the combustion index. although there are many benefits to vacuum curing. Design The setup of EPCC is relatively simple. A lower regression rate will yield a longer burn time and also result in a higher altitude for a given impulse class. For this reason. This has worked fine for past rockets. Chemical reactions begin to take place within the propellant when subjected to high heating and they lead to polymeric chain scissions. Because of the success of programs that utilize curing chambers. The performance of a solid propellant is characterized by Eq. as undesirable voids in the solid grain can be a direct cause of CATO. With an improved propellant formulation. a. one leading to the vacuum and the other serving as a bleed valve. In CP4 the main focus was removing the burn rate modifiers in order to better characterize the propellant and to decrease the regression rate. III. (1). installed on the steel base plate. but not subjected to heating for more than 24 hours for preliminary testing. The second is the burn rate exponent. n. Shaking the propellant during casting will help it to settle and release air before it cures. The first is the temperature coefficient. which greatly reduce the hardness and structural integrity of the propellant grains. Inside EPCC. The exterior of the steel tube was wrapped in a heating element and then insulated to create radiant heat inside the chamber. The last external element was the shaker. II. No detrimental effects of shaking propellant during the casting process have been reported.propellant formulation. This coefficient is an indication of the pressure dependence of the propellant. our pursuit of EPCC is justified. Roberts Law1. This allows the propellant to be more readily used in the EPCC. The only internal element to EPCC was the actual motor casing and the core rod setup. The major quantifiers of propellant quality are the burn rate and performance. These coefficients are propellant and condition specific. CP3 made some minor adjustments to the CP2 formula. We are currently on our fourth iteration of the CrazyPants formulation. they also govern how sensitive a given propellant is when fired under different ambient conditions. the new CP4 formulation is being designed to be less viscous before it cures. the grains that will be cast and cured in EPCC will be cast with heat. The aluminum percentage was also decreased in order to reduce the residual slag found in the grains after burn. The initial design had propellant placed in a thick plastic bladder that was connected to the fill port and supported by a funnel. Traditionally. but future rockets will need a slower burning propellant in order to obtain higher altitudes. special attention must be paid during the utilization of the vacuum. which transferred kinetic energy to the propellant and encouraged the propellant to settle as it poured into the casting chamber. which is known as St. a thermometer was installed as well. the Daedalus CP line of propellant is well known for being a very fast burning propellant. but the initial EPCC use only employed its curing abilities and so this function was not utilized. Additionally. r = aPcn (1) This equation relates the regression rate to the pressure through two empirical constants. Previous testing done on vacuum casting solid propellant motors experienced “essentially no collapse on breaking volume” and therefore little air entrapment2. It essentially consists of a vacuum-sealed chamber that is heated and shaken to encourage air bubbles to escape from the propellant before and during the curing process. cured with heat. but after casting. The chamber was sealed off with ½” thick Makrolon lid that was installed with two ports. Below the Makrolon lid. Theory When developing a composite propellant formulation there are several aspects that need to be taken into account. a silicone core rod was connected via a screw to a silicone base. and is dependent upon the ambient temperature of the propellant. This would allow for . the propellant is once again subject to loading which causes grain relaxation and degrades the propellant integrity from a physical standpoint. But.

(REF) This makes up for the removal of the modifiers. had fewer burn-rate modifiers and a much lower viscosity that improved its “pourability”. These modifiers include Iron Oxide. The new formulation of propellant used in EPCC.Figure 1. CP4. The aluminum was increased by one percent due to the addition of an additional grain. the shaker was turned on and the propellant fill port was opened. The propellant was shaken down into the cast and allowed to settle. The vacuum was relieved as soon as the cast was completed and the shaker was left on for only 15 minutes after the fill port was closed. When the propellant cast completed. To use EPCC. the fill port was closed and the propellant was allowed to cure under heat for 24 hours. a small circular channel was machined out of the silicone base plate to create a seat for holding the motor casing in place during the cast and cure process. and Copper Oxide. the propellant casing was then placed in its seat on its interior silicone base plate. interchangeability and ease of motor removal after cast and cure. Results and Analysis . and the silicone core rod was installed. The CP4 reformulation was rather simple due to the simple objective of removing the burn rate modifiers. the EPCC heating element was powered on and a pre-heat was initiated. Additionally. The shaker was then turned off for the duration of the cure time. mixed propellant was moved into the plastic bladder once preheating was completed. Before getting started with mixing a new propellant. Then. A vacuum was now induced inside EPCC and once the desired negative pressure was attained. Strontium Chromate. Solidworks Render of EPCC This is a rendered image of the EPCC system in SolidWorks. The next step was to determine which components should be increased to make up a full 100%. all seals were checked. IV.

This methodology is not conducive to enhancing propellant quality in large-scale rocket motor applications. After they had cured. pressure. On the first day of casting. hot fire testing of defective propellant . During that first hour the samples needed to be repacked if they experienced expansion. the propellant components need to be mixed under vacuum to reduce the amount of air mixed in and would greatly reduce the amount of air bubbles that need to be removed by the EPCC. and lasted for 24 hours. Initially. It was then realized that the propellant samples should be cast under vacuum. This resulted in a motor grain with no net improvements over the legacy method. Once the propellant produced via the EPCC process is perfected. test fires of CP4 have yet to be completed. the weather that day was cold and rainy. the vacuum seal pulled the propellant up and out of the motor casing. Encased Propellant Curing Chamber design of the EPCC. Previously. the samples were cut into individual grains. after the first test it was discovered that in order to maximize the use of EPCC for improving propellant quality. The vacuum was induced and the grains were allowed to cure once the samples were repacked after 15 minutes. The Figure 2. an additional EPCC benefit was realized. then vacuum-casted with heat for one hour. the propellant was mixed in the traditional KitchenAide mixer and then hand packed into 1” diameter motor casings. the vacuum needs to be released. and humidity would have caused any legacy motor mixing to be delayed until the weather permitted more suitable conditions. but its integrated use will prove to be beneficial in future motor castings. the finalized EPCC design will be arrived upon. The curing took place under vacuum. Due to safety precautions. and not conducive to casting rocket motor grains. the EPCC is still in its experimental phase and subject to many iterations of re-design. but until that point. is still experimental in phase and being subjected to redesign and continued testing. shaking the propellant samples is effective for helping the air bubbles on their way to the surface.For the initial test with CP4 in the EPCC. The shaker was not employed during the initial testing due to monetary constraints during construction. and the curing can continue under heat but not under vacuum. The addition of heat accelerated the curing process. Conclusion When mixing and casting large scale motors it is desirable to have a consistent mixture and density of propellant throughout each grain. The ability to still cast motors in an environmentally controlled environment was paramount. the motor segments needed to be vacuummixed. It was determined that when propellant is allowed to cure under vacuum. The sample grains were placed in the EPCC and the plastic lid was set in place. The propellant was then repacked. Additionally. so the implementation of EPCC was pursued. Due to the disadvantageous propellant density results from using EPCC to cast and cure motor grains. but needed to be fully off-gassed prior to repacking. since ambient temperature. while based on proven This is an image of the EPCC System after assembly methodologies. after initial testing it was determined that the EPCC needed to be supplemented by a vacuumed mixer. Essentially. V. To boost the vacuum efficiency. members of Daedalus cast each grain independently by hand and then cured the grains in ambient conditions. with heat. The lack of desirable results after preliminary testing is to be expected. but not cured under vacuum. the propellant itself is subject to the same forces as the air bubbles and was indeed pulled apart. After the first hour.

An increase in the repeatability of the grains also serves to decrease the possibility of a motor CATO event. further improvements are likely in the near future. Curing multiple grains simultaneously will permit Daedalus to reduce total motor casting time by half. The pull-down casting system also removes the need for hands-on packing of the propellant grain. In conclusion. It has been concurred that many more tests need to be conducted and future considerations have been noted. not including the vacuum pump. Restructuring the casting process to take advantage . Such events can be. further decreasing the time requirement of casting propellant grains. For a noncommercial university application. test equipment. given enough material and mixing can be performed in an assembly line fashion. Finally. the cost of the EPCC system was weighed against repeatability and uniform grain casting. Furthermore the use of a chemically inert. This process can be achieved simply by modifying the existing EPCC system to ensure a more uniform and repeatable pour for large-scale grain casting. Although the EPCC system improved upon the original casting method. and containment system. decrease the time requirement for total motor propellant production. low friction mandrel allows easy removal from a cured grain. investment in Figure 3. This thinner residue is easier to clean than CP3 and allows less aggressive solvent to be used. Utilizing the ball valve coupled with a funnel system can permit the pull-down operation to be achieved with minimal investment and effort. and the full testing for the development and performance characterization of advanced solid propellant cast and cure process will take more time. The cost of a single replacement motor casing is in excess of $300. well within the budget of a university rocketry group. Through the use of a dampened spring system or a vibration absorption material akin to silicon mounting feet prevents a majority of the vibrations from being absorbed by the floor or workbench of the facility. Setup duplicate EPCC apparatus will greatly EPCC setup prior to initial testing. To ensure the reusable nature of EPCC. A pull-down system is the next logical step for the EPCC system as it greatly increases the surface area of the propellant when being cast under a vacuum. An additional improvement option for EPCC is to isolate the vibration to only the apparatus. Localizing the vibration to the pull-down system will permit more vigorous extraction of air in the propellant mix. When determining the effectiveness of any improvement to a production method. further testing of the EPCC will be required to ensure that estimated and predicted performance of the curing will match delivered values. For the EPCC the cost of the initial materials and construction totaled $220. Chief among the improvements is modifying EPCC for use with a pull-down casting apparatus. When mixing and pouring the reformulated propellant. further increasing the useful life of the EPCC system.grains is not allowed. Decreasing the probability of motor failure also serves to increase the reusability of existing equipment. the initial capital investment and subsequent continuous maintenance must be weighed against the effectiveness or cost savings of the improvement. CP4 consumed fewer additives and leaved a much thinner residue on exposed surfaces of mixing and pouring equipment. ignoring the costs of associated hardware. This cost alone is justification for the expense of the EPCC system. significantly improving safety and repeatability. completely reusable solid-state materials for the vacuum chamber itself coupled with an off the shelf vacuum pump maximizes the cost effectiveness and adaptability. further decreasing overall system costs. and have been caused by large air cavities in the propellant matrix due to improper casting techniques.

11-14.. and Biblarz. O. 1971. Space Propulsion Analysis and Design. New York.. “Solid Propellant Processing Factors in Rocket Motor Design. G. and Villarreal. and further expansion of EPCC will increase the density of the propellant by ensuring all entrapped air is evacuated from the propellant matrix.. and Larzon. 2001.” Arizona State University. 7th ed. . G.. D. The design and construction of the EPCC system has proven valuable in refining the mixing and curing processes for Daedalus. McGraw Hill..” SP-8075. 1973. R. Rocket Propulsion Elements.. O. 4 NASA. Chap 6. J. “Demonstration of a Sterilizable Solid Rocket Motor System..” NAS1-10086. J. Henry.1995. W. “A Primer for University Level Solid Rocket Motor Research and Development. References 1 Sutton. 2nd ed. Wiley-Interscience. Chaps.. New York.of the new system will also be required to further improve casting efficiency and repeatability. 3 Humble.. 2 Depree.

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