of stabilizer such as nickel oxide (NiO) or potassium nitrate (KN03) seems to change the transition temperature to above 60°C, a high enough value so that normal ambient temperature cycling will no longer cause recrystallization (Refs. 12-10 and 12-11). AN with such an additive is known as phase-stabilized ammonium nitrate (PSAN). AN is hygroscopic, and the absorption of moisture will degrade propellant made with AN.


This section discusses solid fuels. Powdered spherical aluminum is the most common. It consists of small spherical particles (5 to 60 jim diameter) and is used in a wide variety of composite and composite-modified double-base propellant formulations, usually constituting 14 to 20% of the propellant by weight. Small aluminum particles can burn in air and this powder is mildly toxic if inhaled. During rocket combustion this fuel is oxidized into aluminum oxide. These oxide particles tend to agglomerate and form larger particles. The aluminum increases the heat of combustion, the propellant density, the combustion temperature, and thus the specific impulse. The oxide is in liquid droplet form during combustion and solidifies in the nozzle as the gas temperature drops. When in the liquid state the oxide can form a molten slag which can accumulate in pockets (e.g., around an impropely designed submerged nozzle), thus adversely affecting the vehicle's mass ratio. It also can deposit on walls inside the combustion chamber, as described in Refs. 12-12 and 14-13.

Boron is a high-energy fuel that is lighter than aluminum and has a high melting point (2304°C). It is difficult to burn with high efficiency in combustion chambers of reasonable length. However, it can be oxidized at reasonable efficiency if the boron particle size is very small. Boron is used advantageously as a propellant in combination rocket-air-burning engines, where there is adequate combustion volume and oxygen from the air.

Beryllium burns much more easily than boron and improves the specific impulse of a solid propellant motor, usually by about 15 sec, but it and its oxide are highly toxic powders absorbed by animals and humans when inhaled. The technology with composite propellants using powdered beryllium fuel has been experimentally proven, but its severe toxicity makes its application unlikely.

Theoretically, both aluminum hydride (A1H3) and beryllium hydride (BeH2) are attractive fuels because of their high heat release and gas-volume contribution. Specific impulse gains are 10 to 15 sec for A12H3 and 25 to 30 sec for BeH2. Both are difficult to manufacture and both deteriorate chemically during storage, with loss of hydrogen. These compounds are not used today in practical fuels.


The binder provides the structural glue or matrix in which solid granular ingredients are held together in a composite propellant. The raw materials are liquid prepolymers or monomers. Polyethers, polyesters and poly-butadienes have been used (see Tables 12-6 and 12-7). After they are mixed with the solid ingredients, cast and cured, they form a hard rubber-like material that constitutes the grain. Polyvinylchloride (PVC) and polyurethane (PU) (Table 12-1) were used 40 years ago and are still used in a few motors, mostly of old design. Binder materials are also really fuels for solid propellant rockets and are oxidized in the combustion process. The binding ingredient, usually a polymer of one type or another, has a primary effect on motor reliability, mechanical properties, propellant processing complexity, storability, aging, and costs. Some polymers undergo complex chemical reactions, crosslinking, and branch chaining during curing of the propellant. HTPB has been the favorite binder in recent years, because it allows a somewhat higher solids fraction (88 to 90% of AP and Al) and relatively good physical properties at the temperature limits. Several common binders are listed in Tables 12-1, 12-6 and 12-7. Elastomeric binders have been added to plasticized double-base-type nitrocellulose to improve physical properties. Polymerization occurs when the binder monomer and its crosslinking agent react (beginning in the mixing process) to form long-chain and complex three-dimensional polymers. Other types of binders, such as PVC, cure or plasticize without a molecular reaction (see Refs. 12-2, 12-3, and 12-13). Often called plastisol-type binders, they form a very viscous dispersion of a powdered polymerized resin in nonvolatile liquid. They polymerize slowly by interaction.

Burning-Rate Modifiers

A burning-rate catalyst or burning-rate modifier helps to accelerate or decelerate the combustion at the burning surface and increases or decreases the value of the propellant burning rate. It permits the tailoring of the burning rate to fit a specific grain design and thrust-time curve. Several are listed in Tables 12-6 and 12-7. Some, like iron oxide or lead stearate, increase the burning rate; however, others, like lithium fluoride, will reduce the burning rate of some composite propellants. The inorganic catalysts do not contribute to the combustion energy, but consume energy when they are heated to the combustion temperature. These modifiers are effective because they change the combustion mechanism, which is described in Chapter 13. Chapter 2 of Ref. 12-2 gives examples of how several modifiers change the burning rate of composite propellants.


A plasticizer is usually a relatively low-viscosity liquid organic ingredient which is also a fuel. It is added to improve the elongation of the propellant at low temperatures and to improve processing properties, such as lower viscosity for casting or longer pot life of the mixed but uncured propellants. The plasticizers listed in Tables 12-6, 12-7, and 12-8 show several plasticizers.

Curing Agents or Crosslinkers

A curing agent or crosslinker causes the prepolymers to form longer chains of larger molecular mass and interlocks between chains. Even though these materials are present in small amounts (0.2 to 3%), a minor change in the percentage will have a major effect on the propellant physical properties, manufacturability, and aging. It is used only with composite propellants. It is the ingredient that causes the binder to solidify and become hard. Several curing agents are listed in Table 12-7.

Energetic Binders and Plasticizers

Energetic binders and/or plasticizers are used in lieu of the conventional organic materials. They contain oxidizing species (such as azides or organic nitrates) as well as organic species. They add some additional energy to the propellant causing a modest increase in performance. They serve also as a binder to hold other ingredients, or as an energetic plasticizer liquid. They can self-react exothermally and burn without a separate oxidizer. Glycidyl azide polymer (GAP) is an example of an energetic, thermally stable, hydro-xyl-terminated prepolymer that can be polymerized. It has been used in experi-

ental propellants. Other energetic binder or plasticizer materials are listed in Tables 12-6, 12-7 and 12-8.

Organic Oxidizers or Explosives

Organic oxidizers are explosive organic compounds with —N02 radical or other oxidizing fractions incorporated into the molecular structure. References 12-2 and 12-13 describe their properties, manufacture, and application. These are used with high-energy propellants or smokeless propellants. They can be crystalline solids, such as the nitramines HMX or RDX, fibrous solids such as NC, or energetic plasticizer liquids such as DEGN or NG. These materials can react or burn by themselves when initiated with enough activating energy, but all of them are explosives and can also be detonated under certain conditions. Both HMX and RDX are stoichiometrically balanced materials and the addition of either fuel or oxidizer only will reduce the T\ and Is values. Therefore, when binder fuels are added to hold the HMX or RDX crystals in a viscoelastic matrix, it is also necessary to add an oxidizer such as AP or AN.

RDX and HMX are quite similar in structure and properties. Both are white crystalline solids that can be made in different sizes. For safety, they are shipped in a desensitizing liquid, which has to be removed prior to propellant processing. HMX has a higher density, a higher detonation rate, yields more energy per unit volume, and has a higher melting point. NG, NC, HMX, and RDX are also used extensively in military and commercial explosives. HMX or RDX can be included in DB, CMDB, or composite propellants to achieve higher performance or other characteristics. The percentage added can range up to 60% of the propellant. Processing propellant with these or similar ingredients can be hazardous, and the extra safety precautions make the processing more expensive.

Liquid nitroglycerine (NG) by itself is very sensitive to shock, impact, or friction. It is an excellent plasticizer for propellants when desensitized by the addition of other materials (liquids like triacetin or dibutyl phthalate) or by compounding with nitrocellulose. It is readily dissolved in many organic solvents, and in turn it acts as a solvent for NC and other solid ingredients (Ref. 12-13).

Nitrocellulose (NC) is a key ingredient in DB and CMDB propellant. It is made by the acid nitration of natural cellulose fibers from wood or cotton and is a mixture of several organic nitrates. Although crystalline, it retains the fiber structure of the original cellulose (see Ref. 12-13). The nitrogen content is important in defining the significant properties of nitrocellulose and can range from 8 to 14%, but the grades used for propellant are usually between 12.2 and 13.1%. Since it is impossible to make NC from natural products with an exact nitrogen content, the required properties are achieved by careful blending. Since the solid fiber-like NC material is difficult to make into a grain, it is usually mixed with NG, DEGN, or other plasticizer to gelatinize or solvate it when used with DB and CMDB propellant.


Small amounts of additives are used for many purposes, including accelerating or lengthening the curing time, improving the rheological properties (easier casting of viscous raw mixed propellant), improving the physical properties, adding opaqueness to a transparent propellant to prevent radiation heating at places other than the burning surface, limiting migration of chemical species from the propellant to the binder or vice versa, minimizing the slow oxidation or chemical deterioration during storage, and improving the aging characteristics or the moisture resistance. Bonding agents are additives to enhance adhesion between the solid ingredients (AP or Al) and the binder. Stabilizers are intended to minimize the slow chemical or physical reactions that can occur in propellants. Catalysts are sometimes added to the crosslinker or curing agent to slow down the curing rate. Lubricants aid the extrusion process. Desensitizing agents help to make a propellant more resistant to inadvertent energy stimulus. These are usually added in very small quantities.

Particle-Size Parameters

The size, shape, and size distribution of the solid particles of AP, Al or HMX in the propellant can have a major influence on the composite propellant characteristics. The particles are spherical in shape, because this allows easier mixing and a higher percentage of solids in the propellant than shapes of sharp-edged natural crystals. Normally, the ground AP oxidizer crystals are graded according to particle size ranges as follows:

Medium 50 to 200 nm

Ultrafine submicrometer to 5 ^m

Coarse and medium-grade AP crystals are handled as class 1.3 materials, whereas the fine and ultrafine grades are considered as class 1.1 high explosives and are usually manufactured on-site from the medium or coarse grades. (See Section 12.3 for a definition of these explosive hazard classifications.) Most propellants use a blend of oxidizer particle sizes, if only to maximize the weight of oxidizer per unit volume of propellant, with the small particles filling part of the voids between the larger particles.

Figure 12-8 shows the influence of varying the ratio of coarse to fine oxidizer particle sizes on propellant burning rate and also the influence of a burning rate additive. Figure 12-9 shows that the influence of particle size of the aluminum fuel on propellant burning rate is much less pronounced than that of oxidizer particle size. Figure 12-8 also shows the effect of particle size. Particle

Coarse/fine ratio

FIGURE 12-8. Typical effect of oxidizer (ammonium perchlorate) particle size mixture and burning rate additive on the burning rate of a composite propellant. (From NASA report SP-72262, Motor Propellant Development, July 1, 1967.)

Coarse/fine ratio

FIGURE 12-8. Typical effect of oxidizer (ammonium perchlorate) particle size mixture and burning rate additive on the burning rate of a composite propellant. (From NASA report SP-72262, Motor Propellant Development, July 1, 1967.)

size range and particle shape of both the oxidizer [usually ammonium perchlorate (AP)] and solid fuel (usually aluminum) have a significant effect on the solid packing fraction and the rheological properties (associated with the flowing or pouring of viscous liquids) of uncured composite propellant. By definition, the packing fraction is the volume fraction of all solids when packed to minimum volume (a theoretical condition). High packing fraction makes mixing, casting, and handling during propellant fabrication more difficult. Figure 12-10 shows the distribution of AP particle size using a blend of sizes; the shape of this curve can be altered drastically by controlling the size ranges and ratios. Also, the size range and shape of the solid particles affect the solids loading ratio, which is the mass ratio of solid to total ingredients in the uncured propellants. Computer-optimized methods exist for adjusting particle-size distributions for improvement of the solids loading. The solids loading can be as

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