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Is it possible and worth it to use liquid propellants like liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen in amateur rockets? What are the other types of liquid fuel used?

Moderator's Note: Remember discussion of homemade engines or propellants is explicitly disallowed here, see this meta FAQ. Answers should address solutions that are commercially available for hobby rocket kits.

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    $\begingroup$ There are two books you should have a look at: "Design of Liquid Propellant Rocket Engines" by Huzel and Huang and "Rocket Propulsion Elements" by Sutton. These two books answer your questions far better than Stackexchange can. Both can legaly be read for free online. $\endgroup$ – Rikki-Tikki-Tavi May 25 '18 at 6:03
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    $\begingroup$ This is going to be very dangerous. You should not try this. Rocket engine debugging often starts with a series of unexpected fires and explosions. $\endgroup$ – uhoh Jun 25 '18 at 15:52
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    $\begingroup$ @uhoh Our rule was regarding making your own engine or propellant; it was explicitly not meant to exclude using commercially available hobby rocket products. There are hybrid and liquid engines and propellants commercially available, so I'm tempted to leave this one open as long as we restrict the discussion to prefab engines/propellants. $\endgroup$ – called2voyage Feb 21 '19 at 14:08
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    $\begingroup$ @called2voyage I didn't realize such things existed, thanks. I've retracted my close vote. $\endgroup$ – uhoh Feb 21 '19 at 14:33
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Liquid propellants like kerosene and hydrogen peroxide - that's risky, though doable.

Cryofuels like liquid oxygen and hydrogen - no. Even if you manage to develop an amateur rocket motor that's capable of running on these, the infrastructure for storage and manipulating them is out of range of amateurs. Even professionals like SpaceX avoid LH2 and run on kerosene because liquid hydrogen is so ungrateful substance to handle they are better off going with slightly lower efficiency and not needing to handle it.

You may achieve limited success with "high-temperature" cryogenic liquid propellants - LPG, nitrous oxide; stuff that stays liquid above -100C and is not extremely aggressive. It's still a headache not really worth the extra effort. Just getting a stable combustion and not destroying the test setup in the process is a great success. With air moisture forming frost everywhere, boil-off products creating risk of explosion, and need to handle everything in thick gloves or through prongs to avoid frostbite, racing against the clock when boil-off begins, fumes being not really health-neutral etc, you'll have your hands so full there won't be enough left to actually get any work on the engine done.

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    $\begingroup$ Cryogenic-capable valves alone are well out of reach of any but the most affluent enthusiasts. $\endgroup$ – Rikki-Tikki-Tavi May 25 '18 at 6:20
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    $\begingroup$ @Rikki-Tikki-Tavi. That's when you want to go the semi-professional way. But the way of amateur rocketry often is "if it leaks, place a bucket beneath. If it doesn't want to move, hit it with a hammer." Every valve is cryogenic-capable as long as it doesn't shatter if you apply sufficient force and permit for sufficient leakage. $\endgroup$ – SF. May 25 '18 at 8:11
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    $\begingroup$ Leaking hydrogen is a good way to off youself real quick. And a valve that doesn't open because it's frozen isn't worth much. $\endgroup$ – Rikki-Tikki-Tavi May 25 '18 at 11:33
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    $\begingroup$ @Rikki-Tikki-Tavi: Let's assume we're working with liquid nitrous oxide instead. At least despite the frostbites, bruises and burns you'd retain high spirits. $\endgroup$ – SF. May 25 '18 at 11:44
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    $\begingroup$ I have to say, I really like the phrasing "not really health-neutral" $\endgroup$ – Kamil Drakari Jun 28 '18 at 13:41
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In general, liquid propellants are so difficult to work with and so dangerous, and the rocket engines so difficult to design and build, that commercial engines only barely exist (and seem to be in the territory of rumor, possible Kickstarter scams, and dead Geocities links). Most efforts are more like amateur-operated-and-funded research programs than anything recognizable as mainstream amateur rocketry. Most tests seem to be static.

Liquid fueled engines are forbidden in the NAR and tolerated only by very special (and rarely granted) permission in the Tripoli rocket association. As sad as this is, it's the current state of the world. Perhaps in 20 years the cost of metal 3D printing will be lower and things might be different.

Hybrids seem to be slightly more common and more achievable, though they still have many problems.

The Reaction Research Society exists and provides some facilities and other assistance to people doing liquid fuel rocketry.

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Amateur liquid rocketry is doable but it is expensive. There are only two oxidizers for the amateur, liquid oxygen and nitrous oxide. An alternative is hydrogen peroxide. It is doable but you may need to distill it from 30-50% to 80-90%. Fuels can be kerosene, propane, alcohol.

To build a system is a major effort. Check out the numerous teams competing for the Base 11 Space Challenge. Many teams are spending money but they all have a long way to go.

My advice is to start small, 50 to 200 lbf of thrust for the first engine. Start with a run time of 10 seconds. Short runs mean small tanks. Be careful of material compatibility. Do lots of research to determine what sort of equipment you will need. You will need access to machine tools (mill, lathe, welder, grinder, etc) to make custom pieces.

Finally, it takes lots of time. It is nice to have a group of people involved.

Be Safe, Rick Wills Midwest Propulsion Group

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  • $\begingroup$ All parts contacting liquid oxygen should be cleaned very carefully from any hydrocarbons. Explosions are possible if not. $\endgroup$ – Uwe Jun 10 at 17:13

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