When the lunar module took off from the surface of the moon 40 years ago Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were relying on 4 cubic tonnes of N2O4 — one of the most important rocket propellants ever developed — to return them to lunar orbit and rendezvous with the Apollo Command and Service Module.
It was a short but crucial journey for the men involved — and it had its origins in PhD research carried out at The University of Nottingham 20 years earlier.
By 1969 Nottingham was already well known for its expertise in N2O4 chemistry. Its research into this propellant dates back to 1947 and the work of PhD student Ray Thompson. He wrote his Master’s thesis on the use of liquid N2O4 — laying the foundations for the chemical reaction used to fire the lunar module off the face of the moon.
His research, which at one point involved in a rather large explosion, was published in 1948 in the journal Nature. It also appeared in a series of 19 papers on liquid N2O4 from the research group led by the late Professor Clifford Addison in the School of Chemistry published in the Journal of Chemical Society in the early 1950s.
In 1969 — the same year as the moon landing — scientists at The University of Nottingham were approached to help solve a problem that could been disastrous for the American space programme. NASA needed to find out why N2O4 was causing blockages in the filters and fuel lines onboard NASA space rockets and corrosion in the stainless steel and titanium fuel storage tanks.
The late Professor Clifford Addison and Dr Norman Logan, from the School of Chemistry, were able to pinpoint the iron compound that was causing the corrosion. The blockages and damage were all down to very small amounts of a very sophisticated type of rust — a type of iron nitrate formed by corrosion of the stainless steel propellant tanks and first synthesised and studied in pure form in Dr Logan’s PhD research during the late 1950s.
Dr Logan said: “Since the Apollo era a large number of space craft using liquid N2O4 propellant, such as the Space Shuttle, Ariane and communications satellites have benefitted from the research carried out at The University of Nottingham. This work spanned 50 years from 1947 to 1997.”
On Monday July 20 2009, the 40th anniversary of the first landing of a man on the moon, Dr Logan will return to The University of Nottingham to see the re-enactment of one of Ray Thompson’s experiments. Professor Martyn Poliakoff and Dr Pete Licence will use the exact same model rocket that Dr Logan used in a demonstration lecture given to a large number of school, university and other audiences between 1970 and 1995.
Professor Martyn Poliakoff, from the School of Chemistry, said: “It is great to have the opportunity to celebrate this pioneering chemistry research and its links with the Apollo moon landing. Let us hope that current research at Nottingham will prove equally significant in 40 years time”
The School of Chemistry’s film maker in residence, Brady Haran, has made a short film about The University of Nottingham’s rocket fuel research which can be found on YouTube at:
The media are invited to attend the re-enactment at 2.30pm on Monday July 20 2009 at the School of Chemistry when Ray Thompson’s original Master’s thesis will also be on show.
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Notes to editors: The University of Nottingham is ranked in the UK's Top 10 and the World's Top 100 universities by the Shanghai Jiao Tong (SJTU) and Times Higher (THE) World University Rankings.
More than 90 per cent of research at The University of Nottingham is of international quality, according to RAE 2008, with almost 60 per cent of all research defined as ‘world-leading’ or ‘internationally excellent’. Research Fortnight analysis of RAE 2008 ranks the University 7th in the UK by research power. In 27 subject areas, the University features in the UK Top Ten, with 14 of those in the Top Five.
The University provides innovative and top quality teaching, undertakes world-changing research, and attracts talented staff and students from 150 nations. Described by The Times as Britain's "only truly global university", it has invested continuously in award-winning campuses in the United Kingdom, China and Malaysia. Twice since 2003 its research and teaching academics have won Nobel Prizes. The University has won the Queen's Award for Enterprise in both 2006 (International Trade) and 2007 (Innovation — School of Pharmacy), and was named ‘Entrepreneurial University of the Year’ at the Times Higher Education Awards 2008.
Nottingham was designated as a Science City in 2005 in recognition of its rich scientific heritage, industrial base and role as a leading research centre. Nottingham has since embarked on a wide range of business, property, knowledge transfer and educational initiatives (www.science-city.co.uk) in order to build on its growing reputation as an international centre of scientific excellence. The University of Nottingham is a partner in Nottingham: the Science City.