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 event, 2018-11-17

The Reaction Research Society (RRS) was glad to offer our Mojave Test Area (MTA) to UCLA for a series of tests of their liquid rocket. This was a private event, but Osvaldo and Elisa were there to witness a successful hot-fire series.

UCLA has been working on liquid rockets and this event was to test the improved version of their 650 lbf thrust LOX/ethanol engine. After validating minor modifications to the plumbing and an improved mechanism for their pneumatic valve actuators, UCLA expected good performance from this test with an expected burn time of 13.8 seconds and an expected total impulse of 9000 lbf-sec.

UCLA makes preparations on their liquid rocket, 11-17-2018 at the MTA

Other improvements include collecting better data. Data collection has been a challenge for many teams over the years. Tank, manifold and chamber pressure measurements were successful combined with thermocouples on the LOX lines for a better estimate of density and on the engine outer surface to anchor heat transfer assumptions. This temperature data has helped to better anchor their estimates of characteristic velocity (C*) and specific impulse (Isp). UCLA was not making direct flow rate measurements in this test, but has planned to do so in another forthcoming test.

UCLA’s liquid rocket in position

UCLA has also been giving their newer student team members opportunities on this project by passing knowledge gained from the more experienced members as turnover is a necessity with graduation.

UCLA liquid rocket hot fire way after sunset, 11-17-2018

Results from the hot-fire seemed to show that UCLA’s computational models were fairly close to actual performance. Total impulse was less than predicted at 8174 lbf-sec, average thrust at 467 lbf and peak thrust at 550 lbf, but a longer than predicted burn duration of 17.0 seconds.

These are good results but improvements can be made, particularly in getting direct propellant flow rate measurements. Both C* and Isp can be directly measured from propellant flow rate.

Further refinement of their assumptions based on this new hard data will help them in their next hot-fire planned for January 2019. The RRS is glad to assist UCLA and other universities with their liquid rocket projects at our Mojave Test Area (MTA). The RRS is ready to help UCLA take their next step in the new year.

We will surely discuss the results of this and the upcoming test of UCLA’s liquid rocket at the next RRS meeting, Friday, December 14th, 7:30pm, at the Ken Nakaoka Community Center in Gardena.

MTA launch event, 2018-08-18

The RRS had a small event at our private Mojave Test Area (MTA) on August 18, 2018, to allow Richard Garcia to test his liquid rocket motor. Richard built a pressure-fed, 1000-lbf kerosene-LOX motor including all of the static fire test stand equipment and control valves.

desert morning at the MTA

Richard Garcia reviews his list in the MTA blockhouse

Switch panel and electrical cabling

Richard had spent a good part of Friday and early Saturday getting his test stand mounted and ready. He had made arrangements to share the contents of a liquid oxygen dewar to supply the oxidizer he needed for his test with other RRS member, Sam Austin. Sam was also preparing to fire his liquid rocket motor at the Friends of Amateur Rocketry (FAR) site just south of the RRS MTA on this same day. Arriving early in the morning, I was glad to help Richard with the final preparations at the RRS MTA to start the initial checkouts and ultimately a successful hot-fire test.

Richard checks the wiring and pneumatic line connections

Richard’s 1000 lbf kerosene/LOX motor was designed for a chamber pressure of 300 psig and used a pintle-type of injector with an ablative lined chamber and graphite nozzle.

Richard Garcia tests both flow paths of his pintle injector in water flow

Ablative liner, G10, sits inside the combustion chamber of Richard Garcia’s 1000 lbf kerosene-LOX liquid rocket motor

Graphite nozzle within the chamber assembly of 1000 lbf kerosene-LOX motor

He brought his motor hardware to the January 2018 meeting, but now it was finally time to prove his design with a hot-fire test.

Richard shows his liquid rocket motor at the January 2018 meeting

Richard’s test used a high pressure nitrogen bottle to pressurize his propellant tanks, the left one for liquid oxygen (LOX) and the right one for kerosene. This regulated inert gas source also provided pneumatic pressure for the propellant valve actuators.

Richard’s static fire tanks and equipment mounted and ready for test, 2018-08-18

The top half of the thrust stand with the tanks and valves is fixed to the structure. The engine is suspended below and is secured to a plate which was mounted to an S-type load cell. These devices are an affordable means of measuring both compressive and tensile forces by the internal strain gauges built into them.

An S-type load cell used for thrust measurements in the static fire equipment

Caution was taken to keep the motor clean during handling and installation by caps on the ports and closing off the nozzle with aluminum foil.

View of Richard’s 1000-lbf motor from below; aluminum foil covering the nozzle exit to prevent foreign object debris (FOD) in the injector

With the validation testing complete and all valves are working, fuel was loaded, then preparations to load the cryogenic liquid oxygen (photo courtesy of Rick Maschek of FAR)

Careful review of the firing procedure before getting down to testing

Preparing for LOX transfer (photo courtesy of Rick Maschek of FAR)

All propellants loaded, everyone in the blockhouse, running the final checks before starting the countdown (photo courtesy of Rick Maschek of FAR)

The view from the blockhouse, a nice clean start of the liquid motor (photo courtesy of Rick Maschek of FAR)

Another view of the rocket firing from Richard’s tripod-mounted camera, 2018-08-18

A few seconds later with the dust kicking up from the motor firing, 2018-08-18

Closeup view of the rocket firing from a small mounted camera; it blew over from the firing but capture this image

Most of the testing seemed to work well. The motor had a clean start and stable run time for the full 5 seconds duration that Richard had predicted. Post-test inspection showed the engine to be in very good condition.

A view from up the nozzle after hot-fire; all looks good

Surface of the 1-inch thick steel plate was melted from the impinging plume; perhaps we’ll mount the next engine a bit higher

Tank pressure measurements were able to be recorded, however the thrust and chamber pressure (Pc) measurements were corrupted. Richard is working on downloading the hot-fire video to be posted on the RRS YouTube channel.

Soon he’ll disassemble the injector and chamber to see if the motor can be fired again. This was a great success for the RRS and we hope this to be the start of several liquid motor hot-fire tests as the RRS continues to improve on this powerful type of rocket.

Richard Garcia stands next to his 1000-lbf kerosene-LOX liquid rocket motor at the RRS MTA, 2018-08-18

I hope that Richard will be able to present his results at the next RRS monthly meeting on the 2nd Friday of the month. The next RRS meeting will be Friday, September 14, 2018 at the Ken Nakaoka Community Center in Gardena, California.

The RRS would also like to thank Mark Holthaus and Rick Maschek of FAR for their assistance on this test.

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