Rocket Propellants

Excerpt from "A New Method of Rocket Propulsion," by Linus Pauling. November 10, 1944.

Both the Army and the Navy are developing hypervelocity guns. Of the two, the Army has the greater interest, because of antitank application…. Present work involves taper bore guns, muzzle adapters, light-weight projectiles.

-Linus Pauling, notes taken at a meeting of the Ad Hoc Committee on Internal Ballistics, August 28, 1942.

In the summer of 1940, President Franklin Roosevelt signed into existence the National Defense Research Committee (NDRC), an organization responsible for supplying the U.S. military with scientific solutions to battlefield problems. In September 1940 Pauling joined the NDRC and was assigned to Division B, which was responsible for the creation of bombs and explosives. There, he provided technical knowledge and guidance for researchers developing new explosive materials.

On August 11, 1942, he was asked by Vannevar Bush, the director of the NDRC and its predecessor, the Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRD), to serve as the chairman of the Ad Hoc Committee on Internal Ballistics as related to Hyper-Velocity Guns. Despite the additional work required by the position, Pauling accepted.

The committee’s goal was to oversee the creation of a high-performance propellant for use in hyper-velocity guns. Conventional powders were recognized among military personnel as being both impractical and ineffective. The composition of traditional propellants led to a number of problems including excessive erosion of barrel interiors, blinding muzzle flash, and low shell velocity. For a tactical advantage the new powder needed to be non-erosive, flash-less, and capable of launching a shell at speeds reaching 3,000 feet per second.

Pauling and his committee organized the project agenda and formed research contracts with private industrial laboratories and technical institutes around the country. From there they began developing experimental methods for studying powder combustion. Once they had established effective testing procedures, they designed a set of experiments to evaluate new, hybrid powders that allowed for lower combustion temperatures and greater force. These trials provided the group with data sufficient to move ahead with a large program of creating and test firing projectiles using a number of different propellants, including cordite-n and nitroguanidine.

Pauling’s role in the project was largely administrative. While he preferred to work in the lab, his position as chairman of the ad hoc group required that he make frequent trips to Washington, D.C., create progress reports, and tend to a host of mundane operational details. However, with his colleagues’ help, Pauling did find some time to work in the lab.

In 1943 he began an investigation of a powder that resisted the destabilization that contemporary powders were prone to experiencing. After experimentation, he discovered that dinitrodiphenylamine, a derivative of an existing stabilizer, was much more effective than any other product used at the time. It was not until 1983 that Pauling learned that this discovery had led to an industry-wide change in explosives manufacturing, potentially saving thousands of lives in the process.

Ultimately Pauling’s research team, in conjunction with the various other personnel associated with the ballistics committee, successfully engineered several new powders which proved to be both more stable and more powerful than their predecessors. In 1945 Pauling received a certificate from the War Department, signed by the Secretary of War, the Chief of Ordnance, and the Commanding General of the Army Service Forces. The award was presented “For outstanding services rendered in time of war to the Rocket Development Program of the Ordnance Department.” Pauling received a similar award, a week later, from the United States Navy Bureau of Ordnance.

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2 Responses

  1. [...] 1944 the oxygen meter and propellant projects were running smoothly with only minimal oversight from Pauling.  With more free time available to [...]

  2. [...] We’ve discussed in the past the story of how the National Defense Research Committee was created by President Franklin Roosevelt in the summer of 1940, how Pauling joined in September of that year, and how he was assigned to work on hyper-velocity guns along with a group of other scientists. The committee Pauling belonged to was specifically charged with creating a high-performance propellant to use in hyper-velocity guns, and came up with experimental methods for studying powder combustion. [...]

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