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Our chemistry work helps the Apollo mission


Cliff Addison's work on dinitrogen tetroxide AKA rocket fuel
Norman Greenwood Scientist
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Cliff Addison, as I said, was working on dinitrogen tetroxide. It so turned out that a decade later, when the Apollo programme was being developed to put a man on the moon and return him safely to earth – in Kennedy’s phrase – one of the important things was, how do you make sure that the rockets fire when you want them to. You can’t strike a match in outer space, electric sparks aren’t necessarily reliable or desirable. What you need is what is called a hypergolic fuel. Hypergolic fuel is a fuel of two components which, when put together, immediately catch fire. And dinitrogen tetroxide is one component of such a fuel – it is actually the fuel of choice. When you see a rocket blast off from the moon, as we’ve all seen on television, what happens is, that dinitrogen tetroxide is mixed with a derivative of hydrazine which is itself a derivative of two ammonias stuck together. There are methylhydrazines and then we put dinitrogen tetroxide and our methylhydrazine together, there’s an explosion, a rocket, if you like, and it blasts off. No matches, no spark – it happens every time because that is basic chemistry. Now that was clearly far from Cliff Addison’s view – he was trying to make new compounds by using dinitrogen tetroxide. But the physical background work that he’d done was enormously useful.

Norman Greenwood (1925-2012) was born in Australia and graduated from Melbourne University before going to Cambridge. His wide-ranging research in inorganic and structural chemistry made major advances in the chemistry of boron hydrides and other main-group element compounds. He also pioneered the application of Mössbauer spectroscopy to problems in chemistry. He was a prolific writer and inspirational lecturer on chemical and educational themes, and held numerous visiting professorships throughout the world.

Listeners: Brian Johnson

Professor Brian FG Johnson FRS, FRSE, FRS Chem, FAcad Eu, FAS. Professor of Inorganic Chemistry University of Edinburgh 1991-1995, Professor of Inorganic Chemistry University of Cambridge 1995-2005, Master Fitzwilliam College Cambridge 1999-2005. Research interests include studies of transition metal carbonyls, organometallic chemistry, nano- particles and homogeneous catalysis. Professor Johnson is the author of over 1000 research articles and papers.

Tags: Apollo mission, Cliff Addison, JF Kennedy

Duration: 2 minutes, 6 seconds

Date story recorded: May 2011

Date story went live: 25 November 2011