A great deal of heat is, necessarily, generated by the combustion of propellant in a solid rocket motor. The hot combustion products are under high pressure and must be effectively and reliably contained by the motor casing to ensure the safe operation of the rocket motor. The casing behaves as a heat “sponge”, continually absorbing heat, as essentially no heat is transferred from the casing outer surface to the surroundings (under flight conditions, however, some of the heat may be convected to the atmosphere) thereby continuously elevating the temperature of the casing walls over the operating duration of the motor. Fortunately, operating durations are usually quite short, as most structural materials suffer a significant reduction in strength at elevated temperature. Despite the short burn times, some form of thermal protection is usually required for the casing, as a result of the rapid transfer of heat that occurs in the “inferno” of high pressure turbulent flow conditions present in a rocket motor.
Thermal protection is generally not necessary, however, if all the conditions below are satisfied:
The motor has a particularly short burn time (typically less than one second)
The propellant has a relatively low combustion temperature (e.g. KN based propellants)
The casing is fabricated from a material that will not weaken greatly at elevated temperature, and the casing wall is of sufficient thickness such that it is structurally capable of containing the chamber pressure at its reduced strength.
This is the approach that has been taken for my A-100, B-200 and C-400 motors. For all other scenarios, such as my new kAPPA rocket motor), thermal protection of the casing will be necessary. Practical thermal protection for amateur motors can take three forms:
Layer of thermal insulating (low conductivity) material on casing inside walls
Heat sink, which may be as simple as using a thick walled casing of high conductivity material
Layer of ablative material which absorbs heat as it burns away (or casing is fabricated from an ablative structural material)
Item #1 is self-explanatory, which involves installing a heat-resistant liner against the casing inner walls. The low thermal conductivity of the insulator simply reduces the rate at which heat may be diffused into the casing walls. The challenge is to use a material that is sufficiently heat resistant such that it does not simply burn (or melt) away over the operating duration of the motor. Since most practical materials will in fact tend to burn away, it is necessary to size the thickness of the insulating layer such that enough remains to suit the task.
Item #2 is certainly the simplest approach. As will be shown later, materials with a high thermal conductivity (such as aluminum alloys) are capable of rapidly diffusing and “storing” any absorbed heat in such a manner that the overall temperature of the casing will remain reasonably low, as long as sufficient mass (i.e. thickness) is used.
Item #3 is probably the best approach to thermal protection for motors with high operating (combustion) temperatures and /or long burn times. An ablative material is usually a thermoset plastic or rubber material which decomposes (rather than melts) as it burns away. The material undergoes an endothermic (heat absorbing) degradation shortly after motor start, as the poor conductivity causes the surface temperature to rise rapidly. Pyrolysis gases produced upon decomposition provide additional thermal protection by forming a protective boundary layer.
Both the material yield strength and the ultimate strength are similarly affected by elevated temperature. The yield strength (upon which design is typically based for reusable motors) is the stress level, which exceeded, results in permanent deformation, or yielding, of the structure. The ultimate strength is the stress level at which fracture occurs. The effect of elevated temperature on some casing materials is shown in Figures 1 and 2. It can be seen from these figures that aluminum alloys, in particular, suffer significantly even under moderate heating. For example, at 150 C. (300 F.), the 6061 alloy has only about 80% of the room temperature strength. For comparison, low-carbon (mild) steel retains 80% of its yield and ultimate strengths at 240 C. (465 F.) and 380 C. (720 F.), respectively. For reference, melting points are provided in Table 1.
Note that the strength reductions shown are for prolonged exposure (1/2 hour). For very rapid heating, such as that occurs in rocket motors, the effect is somewhat less severe, as illustrated in Figure 3 for 2024-T3 aluminum alloy. Unfortunately, data on rapid-heating strength of most materials does not seem to be readily available. Consequently, the data from Figures 1 and 2 are used for design, which is conservative.
Thermal protection is of particular importance for motors with free-standing propellant grains. Not only are the combustion gases in constant and direct contact with the entire casing walls, more importantly, convection of the gases greatly increases heat transfer to the casing walls.