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Rocket fuel research celebrated on anniversary of moon landing

20 July 2009 Nottingham, University of

When the lunar module took off from the surface of the moon 40 years ago Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were relying on 4 cubic tonnes of N2O4 — one of the most important rocket propellants ever developed — to return them to lunar orbit and rendezvous with the Apollo Command and Service Module.

It was a short but crucial journey for the men involved — and it had its origins in PhD research carried out at The University of Nottingham 20 years earlier.

By 1969 Nottingham was already well known for its expertise in N2O4 chemistry. Its research into this propellant dates back to 1947 and the work of PhD student Ray Thompson. He wrote his Master’s thesis on the use of liquid N2O4  — laying the foundations for the chemical reaction used to fire the lunar module off the face of the moon.

His research, which at one point involved in a rather large explosion, was published in 1948 in the journal Nature. It also appeared in a series of 19 papers on liquid N2O4 from the research group led by the late Professor Clifford Addison in the School of Chemistry published in the Journal of Chemical Society in the early 1950s.

In 1969 — the same year as the moon landing — scientists at The University of Nottingham were approached to help solve a problem that could been disastrous for the American space programme. NASA needed to find out why N2O4 was causing blockages in the filters and fuel lines onboard NASA space rockets and corrosion in the stainless steel and titanium fuel storage tanks.
The late Professor Clifford Addison and Dr Norman Logan, from the School of Chemistry, were able to pinpoint the iron compound that was causing the corrosion. The blockages and damage were all down to very small amounts of a very sophisticated type of rust — a type of iron nitrate formed by corrosion of the stainless steel propellant tanks and first synthesised and studied in pure form in Dr Logan’s PhD research during the late 1950s.

Dr Logan said: “Since the Apollo era a large number of space craft using liquid N2O4 propellant, such as the Space Shuttle, Ariane and communications satellites have benefitted from the research carried out at The University of Nottingham. This work spanned 50 years from 1947 to 1997.”

On Monday July 20 2009, the 40th anniversary of the first landing of a man on the moon, Dr Logan will return to The University of Nottingham to see the re-enactment of one of Ray Thompson’s experiments. Professor Martyn Poliakoff and Dr Pete Licence will use the exact same model rocket that Dr Logan used in a demonstration lecture given to a large number of school, university and other audiences between 1970 and 1995.

Professor Martyn Poliakoff, from the School of Chemistry, said: “It is great to have the opportunity to celebrate this pioneering chemistry research and its links with the Apollo moon landing. Let us hope that current research at Nottingham will prove equally significant in 40 years time”

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