Calorific Value!

Working of Rocket Engine using Liquid Propellants – Courtesy NASA

My 8th and 9th standard science texts were replete with concepts like calorific value, ideal fuel, molarity etc etc. Fortunately I was one of the few who could understand those conundrums. I was thinking about rocket propellants in those days. I knew that it burned rapidly and completely without leaving residue and that it generated huge volume of gases that drove the rockets forward based on Newton’s 3rd law.

A typical Home Laboratory

In 1998, we moved from our house at Pottakuzhy, were I setup my first actual lab to a house at P.S Road in Azad Road. I was wondering where I could set up my new lab. At Pottakuzhy, the windowpane had some designs made of metallic wires which enabled me to build a platform using the cardboard plate that the bakers kept beneath my birthday cake.

In this new house, I was disappointed because the windowpane didn’t have wired designs. They were just trite metal bars laid horizontally across the window. Anyway, I was able to get a hold of the small table that was previously used to keep the idols of Gods since we moved our Gods to the top of our bookshelf next to our television. By then I had collected so many things that it almost filled my table.

Monomethylhydrazine

Let me get on with the actual incident now. I wanted to develop a propellant that worked like an ideal fuel with great calorific value and all the other attributes I mentioned above. I didn’t have liquid hydrogen, liquid oxygen, methyl hydrazine, dinitrogen tetroxide or neoprene solution. But I didn’t really mind all that because I was confident about my capabilities and the chemicals I already had.

Brandy

So there I went with the quest for the ideal fuel. I took the experiment to my study table adjoining the lab table since there was no space on it and mom had hung some clothes on a rope above that. I took my usual vessel(brandy bottle cap) and added a little brandy to it. I had actually created a handle using thick copper and aluminum wires so that I could hold the vessel in my hand.

Step #1: I lighted the candle. I added a piece of solid NaOH into the brandy in the vessel. I held it to the candle flame. Nothing happened!

Step #2: I added a little candle wax and heated again. Nothing!

A Kerosene Stove – I extracted the Kerosene out of this

I was thinking why nothing was happening. May be another ingredient was missing. I thought about the other possible chemicals that I could add. Copper sulfate was a good choice but thinking about the chemical equations, I didn’t think it was a good idea since I thought it wouldn’t bring forth any favorable outcome. Sodium bicarbonate? Well, I already had Sodium hydroxide which didn’t do anything so far. Then I knew what I could add. I went to the kitchen and brought some kerosene and added a little into the solution.

Step #3: I started heating the new solution on the candle flame. Just 30 seconds and BANG!!! The whole damn thing burned up. The fire in fact spread outside and the whole vessel burned. I got scared and dropped it and extinguished it!

Candle Wax

I was exhilarated. This was really cool. When I checked the vessel, I found that except for the little candle wax I added in Step #2, the whole thing had burned. I thought that probably NaOH catalyzed the mixture of ethyl alcohol and kerosene giving rise to this spectacular combustion!

But was this really a propellant? Did it pass the tests required for it to be called a propellant? The young mind in me was disappointed because a part of me said that I had successfully completed stage one of my quest and that I need to move on to the next stage. But another part of me told that this is just a stupid experiment I did using the stuff in my house and that it is of no use and even if I wanted to pursue this experiment, I needed advanced equipment which I couldn’t afford.

Geotechnical Engineering

Anyway, I wrote down the results in a collection of papers which I maintained in my lab(a lot of which I lost in the ravages of time.) Years passed and I was in my 12th standard. One day at my native, I met my cousin who was then doing his masters in Geo-technical engineering. He asked me which field I wanted to take up after 12th. I told him that I needed to contribute to the field of aerospace science and technology. He was impressed and asked me to pursue it. We then discussed about the various aspects of the field.

The International Space Station – A masterpiece of Aerospace Engineering

During the discussion, the concept of ideal fuel came in. I told him about my experiments to find the ideal fuel. He smiled and told that this is not the right time to speak about ideal fuel. He asked me to do at least a doctorate in aerospace sciences before I even speak about this to anyone. I was partly discouraged but a lot motivated because I knew that someone did know that I had stuff inĀ  me and was ready to guide me in the right direction!

The experiments continued…..