Kourou Space Center, French Guyana. A Soyuz rocket awaits take-off. The men and women at the mission control center in Kourou are all hard at work; the air is abuzz with their intense concentration. At 82.5 percent, the hydrogen peroxide (H2O2) on board the rocket is also “highly concentrated”. It drives the turbo pumps, which force the actual fuels – kerosene and liquid oxygen – into the combustion chambers. As the rocket lifts off, ten tons of H2O2 will be used up in the space of a few minutes.
Production isn’t the only step at which expert know-how is essential. Highly concentrated peroxide has a tendency to decompose when warmed or in the presence of heavy metals, which needs to be suppressed during transportation and storage – first for safety, and secondly in order to ensure a consistent and reliable supply of the desired quality to the customer. Apart from this, rockets require especially pure hydrogen peroxide, because any impurities would deactivate the catalyst. Therefore the requirements for stabilizing the hydrogen peroxide with additives are even stricter than usual. The more concentrated and hence purer the H2O2 is, the more exacting the requirements for transportation.
Degussa has developed specifically approved containers for the process. The inner walls of the containers are first pickled using a complex procedure, after which a protective passive layer is applied and treated with hydrogen peroxide. The properties of concentrated H2O2 call for an individual calculation of the pressure relief that is required by law for transporting such materials; and temperature and GPS monitoring is also needed. “We managed to convince our Russian partners that we are capable of supplying the required 82.5 percent purity reliably, and even to deliver it to Kourou in South America, over 8,000 kilometers from Europe,” says Norbert Nimmerfroh
Long Years of Experience
Hydrogen peroxide is a clear liquid that is easily confused with water at first sight. In the usual production process, H2O2 is formed as an aqueous solution. Normal commercial concentrations are usually between 30 and 70 percent. “Degussa has decades of experience in manufacturing hydrogen peroxide using a process it developed itself and it has the technical expertise to be able to concentrate this aqueous solution up to 98 percent,” says Nimmerfroh. Such high concentrations of hydrogen peroxide are also needed to power space rockets. The technology used in launching the rockets makes use of the fact that hydrogen peroxide decomposes when heated or in the presence of heavy metals, forming water and oxygen and releasing thermal energy.
So what happens when a rocket is launched?
A standard liquid-fuel rocket engine contains the liquid fuel and the oxidant in separate containers. Both of these need to be fed to the rocket engine under high pressure to produce the necessary thrust. “The liquid H2O2 decomposes over a heavy-metal catalyst, generating a lot of heat. This produces gaseous oxygen and steam, which together drive the turbo drives, which in their turn supply kerosene and liquid oxygen as the oxidant to the rocket engines at about 20,000 – 30,000 rpm.” Everything happens at breakneck speed during this sort of launch, with ten tons of hydrogen peroxide being used up in just 300 seconds.
The specialty chemicals manufacturer has at least ten years of experience with hydrogen peroxide in connection with space travel. At the time, it first established contact with an American company that was working on developing a three-stage carrier rocket. “We monitored its development and gained a great deal of experience in the process,” Nimmerfroh recalls. “Today we benefit from the fact that we dealt with the topic so thoroughly, in our logistics and material compatibility testing for instance. And as a subcontractor for the American Orbital Sciences Corporation – a company that concentrates on building and launching earth satellites – we’ve even produced 98 percent H2O2.”
As Innovative as Ever
Hydrogen peroxide is one of the oldest products made by Degussa, and – though this may sound paradoxical – also one of its most innovative. Even though the substance has been known since its discovery in 1818 by Louis-Jacques Thénard, the French chemist who first synthesized it, new applications are still being developed. Ones that, as Nimmerfroh says, “We develop in dialog with our customers, or based on our own ideas.” Hydrogen peroxide production at Degussa began almost 100 years ago in Weißenstein in Kärnten, Austria, using an electrochemical process. Degussa eventually developed its own process, the so called anthrachinone process, and in 1962 built its first own H2O2 plant that uses this process in Rheinfelden in southern Germany.
Degussa is also currently working on another new hydrogen-peroxide production process in cooperation with a U.S. partner, Headwaters. In this innovative process, hydrogen peroxide is produced directly from hydrogen and oxygen. This method was developed to supply hydrogen peroxide as an oxidant for chemical synthesis, in anticipation of a large future market.
Degussa has an annual production capacity of approx., 600,000 tons of H2O2. It has production facilities in Germany, Belgium, Italy, Austria, the U.S., Canada, Brazil, Korea, Indonesia, New Zealand and South Africa. H2O2 is used for a very wide range of applications. The largest quantities are used in pulp bleaching, waste paper recycling and in manufacturing washing powders and liquids; the chemicals industry uses hydrogen peroxide as an oxidant. Other areas of use include pollution control, packaging disinfection and the treatment of waste water and drinking water. Sudden blondeness also indicates that hydrogen peroxide may have been at work. And, of course – which brings us back to the topic at hand – it is used in rocket engines.Degussa
The program has three key elements: to establish a Soyuz launch pad at the Guiana Space Centre, make technical adaptations to the Soyuz carrier rocket for operation in French Guyana (climate, security, technical Interfaces), and contribute to boosting the performance of the third stage.
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