Liquid Rocket Components: Pyrotechnic Valves

by Tom Mueller


Editor’s Note: This is a reprinting of the original article written by RRS member, Tom Mueller on the subject of pyrotechnic actuated valves around 1995 (?). He mentions the build of two different rockets (the XLR-50 and the Condor) and a hypergolic rocket he intended to build after this article was written. We hope to gather more photos and details about these rockets and display them in future improvements to this posting. For now, please enjoy the subject matter as the information is very relevant today to amateur builders of liquid rockets. The RRS has been very active lately in re-exploring liquid rockets. The society thought this would be a timely and interesting subject to share with our readers.

For any questions, please contact the RRS secretary, secretary@rrs.org


For an amateur rocketeer seeking to build a liquid rocket, one of the most difficult components to obtain or build are remotely operated valves. A liquid rocket will require at least one valve to start the flow of propellants to the combustion chamber. In the two small liquid rockets I have flown in the last year or so, both used a pyrotechnic fire valve located between the pressurant tank and the propellant tanks. The propellants were held in the tanks by burst disks (or equivalent) in the propellant run lines. When the fire valve was actuated, the sudden pressure rise in the propellant tanks blew the burst disks, allowing propellant to flow to the injector. This method of controlling the flow to the rocket allows the use of only one valve, and eliminates liquid valves.

In the case of the first rocket, the XLR-50 which flew in October 1993, elimination of the liquid valve was important because the oxidizer was liquid oxygen, and a small cryogenic compatible valve is very difficult to construct.

For the second rocket, which flew in October 1994, the small size prevented the use of liquid valves. In fact, the single pyro valve I used was barely able to fit in the 1.5 inch rocket diameter. In this article I will describe the design of the valves that were used on these two vehicles, and variations of them that have been used in other rocket applications.

FIGURE 1: XLR-50 pyro-technic “fire” valve

The valve shown in Figure 1 consisted of a stainless steel body with a 0.375 inch diameter piston. The O-rings were Viton (material) and the squib charge was contained in a Delrin plastic cap. The Delrin was used to prevent shorting of the nichrome wire, and also to provide a frangible fuse in case the squib charge proved to be a little too energetic. In practice, I’ve never had the Delrin cap fracture.

The inlet and outlet lines to the tanks were silver brazed to the valve body. The valve was tested many times at inlet pressures of up to 1000 psi without any problems, other than the O-rings would need replaced after several firings due to minor nicks from the ports. To help alleviate this problem, the edges of the ports were rounded to help prevent the O-ring from getting pinched as the piston translates. This was accomplished using a small strip of emery cloth that was secured in a loop in one end of a short length of 0.020-inch stainless steel wire. The other end of the wire was clamped in a pin vise which in turn was chucked in a hand drill. As the wire was rotated by the drill, the emery was pulled snugly into the port, where it deformed into the shape of the inlet, and rounded the sharp edge. I used WD-40 as a lubricant for this operation, allowing the emery to wear out until it would finally pull through the port. I repeated this process a few times for each port until the piston would slide through the bore without the O-rings snagging the ports.

Another requirement is to lubricate the O-rings with a little Krytox grease. This helps the piston move freely and greatly reduces the problem of nicked O-rings.

FIGURE 2: Fire valve for a micro-rocket

The pyro valve I used in the 25 lbf thrust micro-rocket that was launched in October of 1994 is shown in Figure 2. This valve was identical in operation to the XLR-50 valve, with the major difference being its integration into the vehicle body. The valve body was a 1.5 inch diameter aluminum bulkhead that separated the nitrogen pressurant tank and the oxidizer tank. Because of the very small diameter of the rocket, the clearances between ports and O-rings were minimized, just allowing the valve to fit. The fuel outlet port was located at the vehicle center, providing pressure to the fuel tank by the central stand pipe that passed axially down the oxidizer tank. The piston stop was a piece of heat-treated alloy steel that was attached to the valve body by a screw. This stop was originally made from aluminum, but was bent by the impact of the piston in initial tests of the valve. The black powder charge in the Delrin cap was reduced and the black powder was changed from FFFg grade to a courser FFg powder, but the problem persisted. The stop was re-made from oil hardening steel and the problem was solved. In this application, the port diameters were only 1/16 inch so only a small amount of rounding was required to prevent the O-rings from getting pinched in the ports. The valve operated with a nitrogen lock-up pressure of 1000 psi.

FIGURE 3: Fire valve for Mark Ventura’s peroxide rocket

A more challenging application of the same basic valve design was used for the fire valve of Mark Ventura’s peroxide hybrid, as shown in Figure 3. This was the first application of this valve where liquid was the fluid being controlled, rather than gas. In this case the liquid was 85% hydrogen peroxide. The second difficulty was the fact that the ports were required to be 0.20 inch in diameter in order to handle the required flow rate. The valve was somewhat simpler than the previous valves in that only a single inlet and outlet were required. The valve body was made from a piece of 1.5-inch diameter 6061 aluminum, in which a 1/2-inch piston bore was drilled. The piston was also 6061 with Viton O-rings, which are peroxide compatible. The ports were 1/4-inch NPT pipe threads tapped into the aluminum body. The excess material on the sides of the valve was milled off, so that the valve was only about 3/4 of an inch thick, and weighed only 4 ounces. Even though the piston size was 1/2 inch, the same charge volume used in the 3/8 inch valves was sufficient to actuate the piston.

In testing the valve with water at a lock-up pressure of 800 psi, I was pleased to find that even with the large ports, O-ring pinching was not a problem. One saving factor was that the larger size of the ports made it easier to round the entrances on the bore side. The valve was tested with water several times successfully before giving it to Mark for the static test of his hybrid.

The only problem that occurred during the static test of hybrid rocket was that the leads to the nichrome wire kept shorting against the valve body. Three attempts were made before the squib was finally ignited and the engine ran beautifully. I have since been able to solve this problem by soldering insulated 32-gauge copper wire to the nichrome wire leads inside the Delrin cap. In this way, I can provide long leads to the valve with reliable ignition.

My next liquid rocket is a 650 lbf design that burns LOX and propane at 500 psia. This engine uses a Condor ablative chamber obtained from a surplus yard. For this reason, I call it the Condor rocket. This rocket uses a scuba tank with 3000 psi helium for the pressurant. I decided to build a high pressure version of my valve as the helium isolation valve for this rocket. When firing this rocket, just prior to the 10 second count, this valve will be fired, pressurizing the propellant tanks to 600 psi. I assumed going in to this design that the O-rings slipping past a port simply wasn’t going to work at 3000 psi.

At these pressures, the O-ring would extrude into the port. In order to get around this problem I came up with the design shown in Figure 4.

FIGURE 4: High pressure helium valve for Condor rocket

For this valve, the O-ring groves were moved from the piston to the cylinder bore of the valve body, so the O-rings do not move relative to the ports. The piston is made from stainless steel with a smooth surface finish and generous radii on all of the corners. The clearance between the piston and the bore was kept very small to prevent extrusion of the O-rings. The valve operation is similar to the one shown in Figure 3, and the valve body is made in the same way except female AN ports were used rather than NPT ports. When the valve is fired, the piston travels from the position shown in Figure 4a to that shown in Figure 4b. During this travel, the inlet pressure on the second O-ring will cause it to “blow out” as the piston major diameter translates past the O-ring groove. The O-ring is retained around the piston, causing no obstruction or other problems. This valve has been tested at 2400 psi inlet pressure with helium and works fine. It will be tested at 3000 psi prior to the first hot fire tests of the Condor rocket next spring.

As a side note, essentially an identical valve design as the one used on the Condor and Mark’s valve is a design shown in NASA publication SP-8080, “Liquid Rocket Pressure Regulators, Relief Valves, Check Valves, Burst Disks and Explosive Valves”.

A second pyro valve is used on the Condor system as shown in Figure 5. This valve is used to vent the LOX tank in the event of a failure to open the fire valve to the engine.

FIGURE 5: Emergency vent valve for LOX tank, Condor rocket

When the propellant tanks are pressurized by the helium pyro valve, the LOX tank auto vent valve (shown in Figure 6) closes. If the engine is not fired after a reasonable amount of time, the LOX will warm up, building pressure until something gives (probably the LOX tank). The pyro valve shown in Figure 5 is used as the emergency tank vent if the engine cannot be fired. The valve body is stainless steel with a stainless tube stub welded on for connection to the LOX tank. This valve has been tested to 800 psi with helium and works fine. In this case, some ‘nicking’ of the O-rings can be tolerated because the O-rings are not required to seal after the valve is fired. The ports in the bore are still rounded, however, to prevent the O-rings from getting nicked or pinched during assembly of the valve.

Even though it is not a pyro valve, I have shown the LOX auto-vent valve in Figure 6 because this design has proven to be very useful for venting cryogenic propellant tanks without requiring a separately actuated valve or control circuit. The valve uses a Teflon slider that is kept in the vent position as shown in Figure 6a.

This allows the tank to vent to the atmosphere, keeping the propellant at its normal boiling point. When the helium system is activated, the pressurant pushes the slider closed against the vent port, sealing off the LOX tank, as shown in Figure 6b. An O-ring is used around the slider to give it a friction fit so the aspiration of the LOX tank does not “suck” the slider to the closed position. This problem happened to David Crisalli (fellow RRS member) when he scaled this design up for use on his 1000 lbf rocket system. I have used this design on the LOX tank of my XLR-50 rocket, which used a 1/4-inch diameter slider, and on the Condor LOX tank, which uses a 1/2 inch slider. In both cases the vent valve worked perfectly.

FIGURE 6: Automatic LOX tank vent valve

The main fire valve on the Condor rocket is a pair of ball valves that are chained together to a single lever so that both the fuel and oxidizer can be actuated simultaneously for smooth engine startup. For static testing of the rocket, I will use a double-acting air cylinder to actuate the valves. For flight, however, I plan to use a pin that is removed by an explosive squib to hold the valve in the closed position. When the squib is ignited, the pin is pulled by the action of the charge on a piston, allowing the valves to be pulled to the open position by a spring. This method may not be very elegant, but it is simple, light, and packages well on the vehicle. David Crisalli has successfully employed this technique on his large rocket.

That covers the extent of the pyro valves I have built or plan to build so far. In the next newsletter, I will present the design and flight of the small hypergolic propellant rocket that used the valve shown in Figure 2.


MTA launch event, 2018-07-21

The Reaction Research Society (RRS) held a launch event at our private Mojave Test Area (MTA) on Saturday, July 21, 2018. As I came into the site in the morning, I snapped a picture our front gate and the rough location which will be the site of our new sign to arrive very soon.

Follow that car. Turn left to go to the RRS.

Jim Gross was our pyro-op for the event. Many of us arrived early so Jim and the rest of the RRS had time to review the projects we wanted to hot-fire and fly if possible that day. Also, it was new members’, Michael Lunny and Bill Behenna’s first trip to the MTA. I think there is no better way to sell our membership on the benefits of the RRS than your first trip to the MTA. It worked for me!

Jim Gross, our pyro-op for the day

We were glad to host another group of students from the Watts area schools with the support of the Los Angeles Police Department’s (LAPD) Community Safety Partnership (CSP). This has become known as the “Rockets in the Projects” program.

LAPD CSP on Facebook

It was a challenge to hold this event in July in the Mojave desert, but the kids and staff seemed to withstand the 100-degree heat quite well with lots of water and bringing ice. We gave our safety briefing to everyone and explained the do’s and don’t’s for the event. RRS member, Matt Tarditti, was there helping with getting people shuttled around to the places necessary including moving our pyro-op, Jim, and his apprentice, (me) Dave Nordling, back and forth between the bunker and the alpha launch rails. Every step adds up in the heat and it’s wise to work as efficiently as you can. The heat ultimately got to me and I had to take a pause into the air conditioning of my truck. Despite my best efforts in hydration, the Mojave summer was still overwhelming. It is a feeling that many RRS members know all too well at some point in their time with the society at the MTA.

Matt was kind of enough to continue to assist Jim to complete the launch series with the alphas. Even, Jim Gross, who has been a resident of the high desert for many years, was having a tough time in the high temperatures and very low winds of that day. We had extremely low winds which made for great rocket launching weather, however with the building clouds above holding in a lot of the heat of the day, it was a real challenge for everyone to fight the stifling heat. The RRS conducts launch and test events at the MTA year-round, but some months are harder than others.

Matt Tarditti and Jim Gross under the hot July sun at the MTA

The LAPD CSP team does a great job in preparing these kids in the weeks ahead before this event. Often, this is many of the kids’ first trip into the Mojave desert. The stark beauty of the landscape hides the subtle dangers of snakes, spiders and the ever-present risk of heat stroke (even at 10:00 AM!). The RRS educational program is both fun and informative and through preparation everyone can make things safe. The kids were quite ready for the final event in the RRS educational program which is seeing their painted and assembled RRS standard alpha rockets take flight.

Michael Lunny, Frank Miuccio and Larry Hoffing stand among the students during the safety briefing at the George Dosa building

Our first goal of the event was to get the students’ rockets in the air so that those less experienced in the desert heat can go on home once the last one was complete. We had seven standard alphas to be launched, all painted by the students as their way to personalize their team’s flight. As always, the RRS reminds our classes that painting the bodies is nice, but since they return to the ground without a parachute, painting the fins in a bright and observable color matters the most when trying to find them on the desert floor. You’ll only have the tail fins sticking out of the ground when you find your rocket.

Seven alphas in the rack from Watts, plus Larry’s customized alpha with the wires sticking out of the payload tube

The kids paid careful attention to the time of flight which gives some data as to how well packed the alphas were. Two stopwatch measurements were made on each of the seven alpha flights. Impact was not heard on the seventh flight, so no data was taken. The results are somewhat consistent between the two readings and ranged between 36 and 39 seconds.

Time of flight measurements on six of the seven alphas flown on 07-21-2018

Ideal time of flight for an RRS standard alpha is thought to be between 35 and 42 seconds. This would indicate that Osvaldo’s rapid micrograin loading system is doing well to properly pack the propellant leading to good results.

Still shot from Michael Lunny’s video of the RRS standard alpha taking off

After the sequential launch of all seven alphas, it was unanimously decided not to let the kids hunt for their rockets downrange. The LAPD CSP team and the Watts kids went home after taking a picture under our arched sign. RRS member, Michael Lunny, shot a great video of one of the alpha launches from the bunker. I hope to get it posted to the RRS YouTube channel. We have a few micrograin rocket flights on YouTube, but we hope to add more content there soon. You’ll notice our name is not fully spelled out due to the old character limit when the account was made.

ReactionResearchSoc

Reaction Research Society on YouTube

After the Rockets in the Projects, this left the rest of the RRS membership to attempt the other projects we had ready for this launch day.

Richard Garcia brought his home-built rocket that is adapted for the sugar-KNO3 motor he tested at the 2018-06-02 event. He made three motors, one as a simple end-burner, the other two were cored. The plan was to fire conduct a static firing or two with his test motors and if all looked good fly the third motor in the rocket from the RRS rail launcher. “Rocket candy” as it is also called in amateur rocketry has been getting more popular at the RRS.

Richard Garcia stands in the assembly area by his golden rocket built for his custom sugar motor

Richard’s end-burner grain, 2018-07-21

Richard’s nozzle for his custom sugar motor

Richard’s two cored grains, sugar-KNO3 motors, 2018-07-21

Richard brought back his vertical static fire stand that bolts to the larger RRS frame. Although his thrust stand is not outfitted with a load cell (yet), it does give him the opportunity to safely secure his test motors and visually compare the results and time the burns.

Richard Garcia’s sugar motor held down to his vertical thrust stand for static fire

Larry Hoffing made a parachute system in his RRS standard alpha. His system was a little different from Osvaldo’s as he required a second firing line to light a delayed fuse for the parachute deployment system he put in. His son, Max, was there to help get things ready for flight as we included Larry and Osvaldo’s alphas into the launch sequence. Larry’s goal was to explore an older method of timing the deployment of his parachute by use of cannon fuse.

Larry’s alpha payload system being made ready for flight, 2018-07-21

Also, Larry had attached a signalling whistle on one of the fins. The ancient Chinese used to mount whistles on their rockets of war to strike fear in the hearts of their enemies as the rockets would scream to their target. It was Larry’s intent to add the element of sound not only for an impressive screeching launch off the rails, but also for better tracking of the rocket’s final descent to the ground. Although having a single whistle mounted to just one fin will impart a spin to the alpha, the flight will still be stable as proven on similar alpha flights. In the recent past, we have had success flying a larger, single keychain camera on the outside of a single fin while maintaining good flight stability despite the nauseating rapid spin seen in the footage from these externally mounted cameras.

Larry’s alpha with a whistle mechanically fastened to a single fin, 2018-07-21

Osvaldo inspects Larry’s alpha rocket in the launch rails with the second firing line connected for the fused payload timer

Unfortunately, Larry’s alpha had a problem at launch with the failure to light the micrograin rocket. Also, with this delay it was apparent that the parachute payload deployed way too early. The goal was to fire at 20 seconds in the flight and the fuse seemed to go at only 2 seconds popping the payload tube while the rocket stayed on the alpha rack. The two systems had to fire at nearly the same time but one system failed entirely and other went off too early.

After exploring all other failure modes with the firing circuit and procedures, it was confirmed that it was a bad electric match with a break in the wire. This was the first time I’ve seen an electric match fail in the three years I’ve been with the RRS, but it has been known to happen. With Larry’s whole payload system requiring repackaging, it was decided for expediency, just to remove Larry’s rocket from the launch rails, remove the nozzle and dump the micrograin propellant for a safe disposal burn on the ground. Larry will be able to re-use his alpha hardware, but it will have to wait for next launch.

Next was Osvaldo’s red colored alpha with his alpha with a parachute system built in it. Osvaldo made some minor improvements to the circuitry and this was to be his second flight. He also had a commercial telemetry package within his payload section.

Osvaldo’s red alpha with the breakwire switch to start the timer and the pull pin to arm the battery before walking away to the bunker to fire

Osvaldo’s alpha parachute system, break-wire secured to launch rail starts the internal timer

The first flight of his original parachute design for the alpha on 2018-06-02 was a complete success. Despite some slight overheating of the parachute from the black powder deployment charge on the initial flight, the rocket still coasted down very gently such that it laid neatly on the ground and a shovel wasn’t necessary for recovery.

The flight of Osvaldo’s second alpha was similarly successful in that the break-wire system and deployment mechanism operated properly, but the parachute itself failed to unfold due to tangling. The rocket’s descent even with the folded parachute was able to be spotted and Osvaldo recovered all pieces of his second flight.

Osvaldo inspects the second iteration of his alpha parachute system, 2018-07-21

Also, as an added bonus, Osvaldo was able to fit a commercial telemetry package to measure the flight acceleration. As the whole package survived in tact, it will be very interesting what the device was able to measure from within the tight confines of alpha payload tube near the nose. I hope he can present his results from the flight at the next meeting.

Osvaldo’s data package survives the flight, a little singed, and despite a folded parachute

There has been a lot of great progress in parachutes for the RRS standard alpha recently. Both Larry and Osvaldo have made great progress. With the persistent efforts of our RRS membership, I think its reasonable to expect that we could offer a standard alpha parachute package for our future events once we demonstrate a series of successful flights, settle on the design and figure the added cost.

Richard Garcia’s project having two successful static firings gave him confidence to try to mount and fly the third sugar motor. After having some initial integration problems and a rail button coming off, he was able to get his golden rocket ready for a launch on the rail launcher.

The rail launcher at the MTA is a great asset to the society. It has been used on several projects with good success, but it is a very heavy and sturdy device that requires two or three people to assemble and make ready. Also, the pin system that connects the rail to the stand fits very snugly and sometimes requires a lot of elbow grease and persuasion (perhaps with a rubber mallet) to get the right alignment of the holes. Despite the high heat, we managed to get things ready for Richard’s flight.

Rail piece with 12-foot, 80-20, 1515 aluminum rail

Launch rail base

Launch rail system ready to receive the rocket

Underslung launch rail system at the RRS MTA, assembled and ready for Richard’s flight, 2018-07-21

80-20 aluminum 1515 sized rail (1.5-inch) used as the guide for the launcher

Richard checks the manual for the telemetry package that he armed for flight.

Richard’s flight was on one hand a little underwhelming as his sugar motor did not produce a great deal of impulse, but it did manage to propel itself up and get clear of the launch rail before neatly turning back to the ground in a low-speed, but very steady and stable flight. Although his rocket only made it 50 feet downrange, it can be seen in the flight video that his rocket was stable throughout the whole low speed which is a testament to Richard’s good construction of a very aerodynamic and well-balanced vehicle.

The sugar motor doesn’t offer much impulse as it burns out shortly after clearing the launch rail

The rocket gently pitches over after burnout heading for the ground not very far downrange (the last good frame I have from my camera-phone)

After a perfect arc at its low apogee, the rocket turned back to the ground and landed almost perfectly on its nose. Despite the rough landing, the nosecone wasn’t damaged and many parts of the vehicle were similarly undamaged.

A very short, but extremely stable flight off the rails for Richard’s golden rocket with a custom sugar motor

Richard safes his payload system as he inspects the recovered rocket.

Richard will be working on increasing the impulse from his motor, but he can be very confident in his vehicle design. With a little rework on some of the parts, I think he should have a very impressive flight at the next launch event.

Osvaldo has put a lot of work into the horizontal thrust stand that I started. To be able to static fire an alpha rocket to measure the impulse, we have to accomplish two more things.

RRS horizontal thrust stand in need of an extension piece to stabilize an alpha for static fire

The first is to get better mechanical support for an RRS standard alpha to prevent sideways motions or “wagging” during firing. The stout, welded frame of the horizontal thrust stand fits just fine to the concrete slab foundation and is very secure, but the 3-foot length of an alpha could create quite a wicked angular load on the load cell. After Osvaldo and I had discussed a few design concepts, Osvaldo brought his design to the MTA. Given the time constraints of the launch events that came before and the stifling heat, we had no time to attempt a fit check of an alpha rocket in the thrust stand. The complete assembly will have to be fit checked at the next event. Osvaldo had also noticed that when the long alpha rocket is put into this short stand, the rocket doesn’t align very well with the beam. Some minor adjustments might be necessary to make sure the thrust vector is properly aligned with the axis through the load cell.

RRS horizontal thrust stand extension piece

The second thing is to try to calibrate the load cell to make sure the S-type load cell is still reasonably within its original factory calibration. Osvaldo brought in a home-built frame with a hydraulic jack and pressure gauge which can reasonably approximate a force by the pressure and piston area relationship. We didn’t have time to try this setup, but this device can be demonstrated at home if Osvaldo has time before the August 10th meeting.

hydraulic jack testing rig for verifying the S-type load cell calibration

hydraulic jack-based force tester with high pressure gauge attached

The horizontal thrust stand was not ready for the 2018-07-21 launch event due to a lack of cabling and a hardy computer to manage the data acquisition. Many of us are reluctant to bring our personal laptops to run the data acquisition in the abrasive sandy dry lake environment at the MTA. Chris Lujan at the July meeting talked about using a simple Arduino Raspberry Pi computer as a low-cost alternative to gathering and processing the data. Hopefully, the RRS will get a simple device for this purpose and have it programmed to take data from the load cell as we conduct our hot-fires from this horizontal thrust stand. There still is a lot of work to do in getting the horizontal thrust stand working. With more hard work, the RRS will have this project working soon, hopefully by the next launch event in the fall. We’ll post updates as this project advances.

One final note on the event is that the RRS will be posting a few things on Instagram once the secretary (me) has time to get things started. The RRS is brand new to Instagram so we hope to expand our presence here to better show everyone what we do. At first, the RRS executive council will have access to post photos at the events we attend for the RRS. We hope this presence on Instagram will generate more excitement and participation at events with the RRS.

Follow RRS on Instagram

The RRS will certainly discuss today’s launch event as a whole at the next meeting on Friday, August 10, 2018. There were a lot of great things we tried at the event, but there were also a lot of logistical things we can do better next time. Also, it would be a good time to review some of the material improvements that we ought to make at the MTA to better handle the projects we expect in the near future.

Please join us on August 10th!