This comment got me thinking...

Pure oxygen from a tank of LOX can allow a wide variety of materials to be used as a convenient if not always optimal rocket propellant; things like parafin and sugar for example.

I have not seen even a partly-serious demo of wood as fuel. Would wood not work well? Is there some property of wood that would make wood unsuitable, or could wood be used?

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    $\begingroup$ It is a sort of hybrid engine youtube.com/watch?v=TLPWqCMb7DE $\endgroup$ – Antonio Cipolla Apr 23 '17 at 15:04
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    $\begingroup$ Does a blowtorch count as a rocket engine? (I will seriously downvote any questions about the specific impulse of prosciutto/GOX.) $\endgroup$ – Russell Borogove Apr 23 '17 at 15:30
  • $\begingroup$ @RussellBorogove I know, this one is on the edge. I wonder if it should be converted to a community Wiki with the title "how many materials have been demonstrated..." or "what's the strangest material..." $\endgroup$ – uhoh Apr 23 '17 at 15:34
  • $\begingroup$ Dr. Snuggle's Spunky Bank Bang was even made out of wood. $\endgroup$ – LocalFluff Apr 23 '17 at 15:35
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    $\begingroup$ @RussellBorogove have reworked it a bit. Not a trace of prosciutto(?) $\endgroup$ – uhoh Apr 24 '17 at 1:55

Wood burns just fine with LOX or gaseous oxygen; it would "work" in the sense that it would produce hot exhaust gas which could be accelerated through a convergent-divergent nozzle to produce thrust. Wood is primarily made up of cellulose and other carbohydrates; cellulose has been fired with GOX for a respectable 247s of specific impulse.

There are at least a couple of ways it's not ideal, though.

The cellular structure of natural wood is going to burn unevenly, so thrust won't be consistent. Like a fireplace log crackling, pieces of unpredictable size are going to split off from the "grain"; it's possible that splinters could get caught in the nozzle of the throat, causing pressure spikes in the "combustion chamber" and so forth.

Secondly, density of dry wood, depending on species, runs in the ballpark of about 0.5-1.0 g/cc, as compared with pure cellulose at 1.5 g/cc. So its density-specific impulse is not great. Additionally, even dry wood also contains a certain amount of moisture, which is dead weight not contributing to combustion (though it would contribute reaction mass, of course).

So, while a wood hybrid rocket could be built and flown as a demonstration, there are better options available.

  • $\begingroup$ Retooling the question certainly paid off! Thank you for the thoughtful and thorough answer. The linked review of hybrid propellant combinations is also an excellent read, very densely written with plenty of insight. $\endgroup$ – uhoh Apr 24 '17 at 2:50
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    $\begingroup$ If we had some advanced genetic engineering technology, we could perhaps find a way to get trees to provide their own oxidizer... obooksbooks.com/books/2163.html $\endgroup$ – Russell Borogove Apr 24 '17 at 6:40
  • $\begingroup$ Niven without warning - you've just made a substantial dent in my already sub-standard productivity today! Before I read that, photosynthesis does make a lot of free and radicalized oxygen (pardon the term) on its way to making O2; Hydrogen peroxide (H2O2) is produced predominantly in plant cells during photosynthesis and photorespiration, and to a lesser extent, in respiration processes.. $\endgroup$ – uhoh Apr 24 '17 at 6:49
  • $\begingroup$ ...and there's these nematodes from the future: thespacereview.com/article/1473/2 $\endgroup$ – uhoh Apr 24 '17 at 7:14
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    $\begingroup$ but performance aside, combustion stability is a big thing that sent many engine designs to an early grave (and some test engineers probably too...) $\endgroup$ – SF. Apr 24 '17 at 17:50

I'd point out that moisture, and in low enough quantities even minerals, may not add combustion energy but do serve as reaction mass. Unfortunately I suppose minerals would tend to produce abrasive ash which would be bad for the throat and nozzle. The low density of wood also makes it a good insulator so one might have low-temperature tolerant material wrapping the wood block for pressure containment; only as the wood layer gets to be very thin would enough heat leak out to soften or otherwise threaten the structure. But the basic problem of quality control remains, with the wood as pointed out tending to crack, creating hot spots on the pressure containment wrap and terminating the use of the wood early, and at an unpredictable moment, not to mention shedding large embers blocking the nozzle as also mentioned. To make the burn more predictable, one would have to break solid blocks of wood into thin layers for re-wrapping as plywood. It seems to me the main advantage of using wood for fuel would be the simplicity of just finding a suitably shaped block of natural wood, milling it to fit in the pressure containment jacket and drilling a central column for the initial burn, an advantage completely discarded if we have to build the wood up as plywood or particle board. If we have to build it up we might as well use paraffin or some such instead. And the insulation factor is a bit of a red herring; hybrid solid fuel elements insulate by ablation, the outer layers are kept cool enough since the inner layer that is burning is evaporating. Indeed, one limit on development of hybrid rockets is that it is not easy to get the solid fuel to evaporate rapidly enough to deliver thrusts comparable to traditional solid propellants that include the oxidant!

Genetically engineered "stage trees" a la Niven of course are not hybrid since the oxidant is mixed into the fuel to make a more traditional solid propellent, that cannot be controlled. Presumably however the stage trees are very sophisticated in the respect of layering their combustion elements for a prescribed burn, and having both very high thrust (to minimize gravity loss during ascent) and very low propellent/"dry" mass fraction, achieved I suppose by a combination of very light yet strong outer skin (something like spiderweb or Kevlar strong--Kevlar also can tolerate fairly high temperatures) and strong but combustable cell structure. I figure the mass ratio of propellent to spent mass, of which the interstellar "seed" would only be a portion, must be well over 1000. We can't do that with human fabricated rockets but I suppose it might be possible for something biologically grown to achieve it. It has to, to achieve total delta-V from the surface of 20 km/sec or more to achieve system escape velocity and thus send its seed at a decent speed between stars. Once launched I suppose it deploys some kind of solar sail to maneuver in close encounters with stars, to either aim for another candidate star or maneuver to collide with a suitable life-bearing planet. Depending on how big this "seed" needs to be to survive hundreds of thousands to millions of years coasting from star to star--I'm guessing a metric ton, give or take an order of magnitude--I'd suppose the tree itself--the actual rocket trunk, not other vegetation with leaves and roots to obtain the necessary energy and nutrition to grow the trunk and seed--would have to mass from a thousand to a hundred thousand tonnes!

And it would have to "know" the delta-V needed to send its seed on from the host planet. Fortunately this information is available from its entry into the host star system, its detection of and approach to the host planet, and refined by observation of planetary atmospheric entry details. This can all be integrated into a simply benchmark number that can be encoded in genetic material and guide its detailed growth strategy, aiming for a certain size to accomplish another interstellar launch. The tree also has to pick a target star, in the plane of its host system's ecliptic, and time its launch to aim for it. Given the sort of optics it would need for interstellar navigation I suppose this is fairly easy.

So yeah, stage trees could be a thing, though I don't think much of their chances of evolving by sheer chance. Niven's aren't supposed to have randomly evolved though; they are offspring of genetically engineered products meant to provide cheap launch capability to the "Slaver" species aka Thrintun, and their engineers, the Tnuctipun slave/rebel species, may have secretly installed modules predisposing them to interstellar spread and survival, now honed by a billion years of natural selection after the Tnuctipun took down the Slaver empire in a mutually destructive rebellion.

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    $\begingroup$ For very long answers, it is really helpful for readers to add some headings or subdivisions. This wall of words is a little intimidating. I might suggest that one way to subdivide it is to separate the part that answers the question as asked from the part that expands upon one of the comments about a science fiction story, which is not factual. A good stackexchange answer should be factual, and so if you want to inject scifi, at a very minimum you need to clearly label it as not part of your answer and keep it separate. Thanks! $\endgroup$ – uhoh Apr 25 '17 at 0:42

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