Burst discs in liquid rocketry

by Dave Nordling, Secretary, Reaction Research Society

I was recently asked for advice on the installation of a burst disk in a university liquid rocket project. As any pressure relief device is an important subject to consider carefully, I wanted to present a summary of my thoughts to our broader readership.

The Reaction Research Society (RRS) is happy to offer advice, but my first recommendation to any university team would be to talk with your university professors, professional advisers and mentors that are involved with your project. A burst disk is an important component and its function can be critical for safety and preserving your vehicle in any over-pressurization scenario. The subject of your rocket system pressurization, venting and relief devices is extremely important to study well and thoroughly understand before proceeding with any component selection or testing.  Your university is the best place to start.

For those who are doing a liquid rocket project outside of a university program, I would also recommend to consult with experts and reputable manufacturers and distributors of pressure relief devices including burst disks.

Burst discs (the spelling “disk” or “disc” is interchangeable) are one simple form of a pressure relief device or valve that is designed to prevent over-pressurization of a pressure vessel and potential catastrophe.  Burst disks are also sometimes called “rupture disks” which clearly describe their function.


In liquid rocket system designs, burst disks are often placed not only at the pressurant bottle to protect the higher pressure part of the system, but also at the lower pressure end of the regulator which protects the propellant tanks being pressurized. In the event of pressure regulator failure, the burst disk can protect the propellant tank.

Burst disks are usually in the form of a dead-ended pressure fitting that is adapted to directly connect into the pressure vessel either directly into the pressure vessel volume boundary itself or by a tube connection that is also directly connected into the pressure vessel volume boundary. These fittings have a frangible or breakable membrane that is designed to fail when the pressure reaches a specific design point.

An illustration of the burst disk fitting concept

A burst disk is a “one-time use” device and can not be reset after they have “actuated”. As a pressure relief device, the burst disk is often chosen for its compact size and simplicity. They are in common usage in many industries and can fulfill their relief function very well if they are sized and located properly.

They must be securely and directly connected into the volume of the pressure vessel and have no valves or other hardware which would isolate, block, impinge or constrain the relief function in any way. The American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) Boiler and Pressure Vessel (B&PV) code does have some general advice on this subject and this is a good place to start your study.

These devices are simple to understand but fairly complex to size properly. Beyond the design of the burst disk, you must also consider where these devices will physically fit on your vehicle, where are they located and what is the environment doing around your relief device

The burst disk body and membrane can be subject to corrosion or physical damage that could reduce it’s effective bursting pressure. It’s important to consider the material compatibility of all body, seals and membrane materials that are exposed or “wetted” to the gases inside. Also, its important to avoid getting gouges, nicks or marks on the membrane that would form stress concentrations and weaken the membrane. Even when being cautious, don’t leave your burst disk covered when it needs to be ready to perform. Careful handling is good advice at all points in the project.

There are three things to consider when locating and installing a burst disk:
(1) relief (set) pressure, (2) minimum flow rate required, (3) where is your burst disk pointed?

(1) Set pressure of the relief device

Any relief device must be set to actuate (or in the case of a burst disk, to rupture) at a pressure above all of your nominal conditions, but also adequately below any and all failure modes.  In some pressure vessel or relief device codes, there are rules of thumb about the set pressure must be a specific percentage (%) above the maximum expected operating pressure (MEOP) or maximum allowable working pressure (MAWP). The thorough examination of all operating conditions and hardware limitations is essential of finding the right set pressure for the relief device. 

ASME also has codes for sizing relief valves in process piping, but the rocket industry doesn’t have a particular specification. The aerospace industry does often draft their own specifications and requirements which follow good industrial practices and always include careful design and testing as part of proving the designs to be sufficient.

Another consideration beyond the static pressure in your pressure vessel is the temperature environment of the gases inside. Beyond the fact that higher temperatures from a thermodynamic standpoint create higher pressures, a burst disk relies on the material strength of the membrane and the yield and ultimate strength can weaken under higher temperatures. Some materials (examples are low quality steels) can also become weaker under cold temperatures. Always consider the full range of temperature environments in every application. It’s important to size each burst disk individually and resist the temptation to assume that one device will suit all environments.

There’s a big tolerance on a burst disk set pressure, so be aware of that imprecision. Burst disks are compact but getting a membrane to burst at an exact pressure is not really practical and thus these devices are not very precise.  Ask the manufacturer about the expected tolerance on any relief device. It’s also wise to test a few of these devices to measure the actual burst pressure. Make sure you are recording data because failure happens suddenly and you are unlikely to visually see the last pressure reading before burst. If you blink, you can miss the most important data point. Therefore, use a data acquisition system when testing your pressure relief devices.

(2) Minimum flow rate required

Any pressure relief device when activated must be able to drop pressure fast enough to avoid over-pressurizing and failing the pressure vessel. This is a less commonly evaluated situation but its equally important to recognize any scenarios where the transient pressure rise would challenge the relief flow rate needed to keep the pressure below a safe level at all times. Steam pressure systems have this problem and so do cryogenic vessels.  Most designers just choose a fitting similar in size to the lines being used, but this isn’t always accurate. 

Relief devices are nearly always sized relative to their flow rate afforded.  This is sometimes called the “capacity” of the relief valve or burst disk. You’ll need to know your gas and upstream conditions. With this, you’ll need to know the open area when the valve is opened and make this is the smallest restriction in the entire flow path. The open area can be expressed as either the discharge area (Cd A) or the valve coefficient “Cv” value. With each device in each specific location, you must select a burst disk capable of venting enough flow to cover the whole range of expected conditions. This is crucial to finding the right burst disk or relief valve. A device that does not have a large enough capacity will not protect your fluid system.

Another consideration for your relief device is if you have any flow path that is smaller than the area of your relief device. One example of poor design is having your pressure relief device located at the end of a long skinny tube. Even if the open area of the tubing is larger than the pressure relief valve opening, the length of the line can accumulate enough flow friction in the tubing that can unintentionally add up enough pressure drop to pose a significant restriction to your relief flow. This is to say nothing of someone accidentally denting or kinking the tubing which would create a severe blockage of the relief flow. It’s always smart to have your pressure relief device very closely coupled to the pressure vessel volume that you are protecting. This means keeping the distance as short as possible. Always know all of your flow path areas and line lengths!

Another classic mistake in fluid system design is putting a valve or any other restriction device in-between the pressure boundary volume and the pressure relief device that is protecting it. Careful consideration of all valve placements and their positions in all operating modes and under all possible operating scenarios. Put simply: “Do NOT EVER create a situation where the pressure relief device can be isolated or impeded in its operation at any time for any reason, even temporarily. Some piping codes absolutely forbid this. Careful peer-review of your pressure and instrument diagrams (P&ID’s) must look for this situation and avoid it. More than reviewing the paper schematics, one should physically trace all flow paths to be sure the builder hasn’t made such a mistake. The physical hardware must always match the P&ID.

(3) Watch where your burst disk is pointed! 

When your burst disk goes off, any foreign object debris (FOD) near the discharging outlet can be thrown out at high speed causing injury or damage to nearby hardware and structures. Even without particulates or FOD, the impinging high-speed sonic jet of gas is very dangerous.  No one should be standing near a fluid system while any part of it is pressurized anyway, but you should always consider what might happen when your burst disk goes off. You won’t always know when the device will go off. Be prepared at all times.

Make sure all hardware is also secure enough to take the sudden thrust from the burst disk relieving itself. This can be a sudden and powerful force that breaks hardware or knocks things over. The rocket thrust equation also applies in this case. To calculate this thrust value, you do this in two parts: (1) You consider the choked flow pressure differential multiplied by the discharge area and (2) add in the product of the mass flow rate of the gas escaping multiplied by the sonic velocity of the upstream gas conditions.

Calculation of the thrust load from a discharging relief device such as a burst disk

As a design note, for nearly all gases, if the upstream pressure is more than double that of the downstream pressure, the flow velocity through any flow path restriction(s) or “orifice area” is sonic or at the speed of sound as computed by the upstream gas pressure and temperature conditions. This is called “choked” flow.

One potential fix to the jet thrust problem out of relief device is to divert and diffuse the discharging outlet flow in opposing or evenly distributed directions as long as the combined discharge flow areas are sufficiently large and balanced.

An illustration of a burst disk device with balanced venting

Another consideration to be made with a burst disk or pressure relief device is to consider the downstream environment where your burst disk is discharging.

Is the relieving gas or gas mixture going to create a flammable or toxic environment? If so, you need to consider how and where you are diverting the hazardous gases being relieved. Some burst disk fittings have threaded ends on both ends which allows the discharging flow to be routed to a safe location, if this is a necessary feature.

Screw-type burst disk fittings made by Zook in three basic types

Are you creating a dangerous environment (reduced oxygen) within a confined space? The subject of confined space safety is very important and worthy of a separate article in itself. Most testing will be done outdoors and in a very well ventilated environment, but the rocket business is full of horror stories of people who have become injured or asphyxiated simply from improper consideration of confined space safety.

A less often considered scenario is whether the space where the burst disk or relief valve is discharging into is fully open to the environment or not. It is possible to overly restrict or “back up” a burst disk or relief valve if the interstage volume in your rocket isn’t very large or isn’t adequately vented to the outside. Sometimes your discharge space simply isn’t big enough. It is very important to know your vehicle hardware geometry very well, measure your volumes and consider all flow areas out of all assemblies.

Find a reputable burst disk manufacturer and distributor

There are a few reputable manufacturers of burst disks. Fike is one that comes to mind, but they tend to be for very large piping sizes used in facility plants. Fike has been providing reliable products for many years to many industries including oil/gas and the aerospace industry. Swagelok has access to a lot of fluid component manufacturers which may be more suitable.

Zook is another manufacturer of burst disk fittings. These in-line devices come as a holder fitting and replaceable disk. The screw-type fittings are two-piece assemblies and have standard pipe thread ends. The disks come in a range of nominal set pressures.

Screw-type burst disk fittings by Zook


There are certainly other manufacturers and all of them should be able to provide you with good advice or transfer you to a distributor company to help you with selecting an appropriate device. Before you call or email, you must have already taken the time to understand your pressure environment, capacity and design requirements first. A good component distributor is one that is willing to work with you to find the right part for your application and educate you in making the best choice. Literature is easy to find online and always consider more than one manufacturer to get a good price.

A few last words of caution

Burst disk devices can be manufactured from scratch and other amateur rocketry hobbyists have attempted to do so. This is not a good idea. There are a lot of considerations to make in building a reliable burst disk from scratch not to mention the time and materials to adequately prove the design. To make a burst disk from scratch would become every bit as expensive as simply going to a reputable manufacturer and using their product.

As much as your group may want to save money, pressure relief devices are a critical part of your fluid system to which lives may be at stake.  Don’t be cheap. Find a quality manufacturer, select the right product and test them.  Ebay is not the place to find quality products.

If anyone has anything to add to this subject, please contact the RRS secretary or the RRS director of research.



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.