The History of Hydrogen Peroxide Propulsion
Hydrogen peroxide has been used in many applications for propulsion and power generation in the last 70 years.
Its first major use was by the German Luftwaffe during Word War II. In 1936 Helmuth Walters´ Walterwerke developed a 1000 kgf hydrogen peroxide propelled ATO (= Auxiliary Take Off) rocket engine for the Heinkel He 176. This first engine was a cold monopropellant rocket engine using injection of calciumpermanganate solution as a decomposition catalyst. 80% conc. H2O2 was used.
Shortly after this, the same company supplied the rocket engine to the Messerschmidt Me 163B Komet. This engine was a hot bipropellent rocket engine. 80% conc. H2O2 was used as the oxidizer. As the organic liquid fuel a mixture called "C-Stoff" was used. It contained hydrazine hydrate and methyl alcohol. C-Stoff was self-igniting (aka hypergolic), so no other decomposition catalyst was needed in this engine.
Probably the most well-known application of H2O2 during WW II was in the V2-rocket for the turbo-pump gas generator.
Hydrogen peroxide was used in several other applications by the Germans, like in submarines and torpedos, but the most frequently used device was a catapult operated on 80-85% H2O2 and calciumpermanganate solution. Several hundreds of these catapults were produced and each catapult was used many times.
Post WW II - 1980's
Many different peroxide propulsion projects were launched in UK, USA and in the Soviet Union after WWII.
The most successful development were probably the English Black Knight/Black Arrow projects. These were rocket engines produced by Rolls Royce. The concept was based on the bipropellant principle. 83-87% H2O2 was used as the oxidizer. In the early stages of the English projects the hydrogen peroxide was still produced in Germany! Later on the English company La Porte took over the production. The H2O2 was decomposed on a silver wire mesh catalyst and kerosene was used as the organic fuel.
The United State Air Force and the Marines used H2O2 propelled engines after WWII. The standard rocket grade H2O2 in the US had a concentration of 90%.
General Electric produced a Hybrid Rocket Engine. The H2O2 was decomposed on a silver mesh catalyst and the organic solid fuel was polyethylene.
When jet engines were developed after the war, the peroxide propulsion rocket engines in the field of jet aviation became obsolete.
In the field of space exploration, other fuels with a higher specific impulse replaced hydrogen peroxide. These new systems were much more complicated and expensive. They were in many cases also poisonous or cancerogenic or harmful to the environment. At that time in history, these things were less important than winning the cold war and the race to the moon!
The only military field in which peroxide propulsion survived the cold war was as torpedo engines.
Regular production of rocket grade hydrogen peroxide stopped in the US in the middle of the 1980's.
Even if the use in the military sector and in space declined, a couple of very interesting and fascinating uses were developed during this time period that are still in use, even if they are yet not wide spread:
* One is the Personal Rocket Belt, developed by Wendell Moore at Bell Aircraft Company. US Patent 3021095. One version of this back pack rocket was flying at the opening cermony of the Los Angeles Olympic Games 1984. This event has etched itslef into many peoples minds! For the general public it is by far the best known application of hydrogen peroxide rocket technology.
* The other application is the rotor tip rocket for helicopters, developed by Gilbert W Magill and others. US Patent 4473199.
These patents have expired at this time. If you want to read them, go here and punch in "US" and the patent number.
1990's - present
The good news are that hydrogen peroxide has seen a great deal of renewed interest in the 1990s. There are many reasons for this. Most important I believe is its minimal environmental impact, simplicity of handling and lower cost. Since 1998 there have been six (!) International Hydrogen Peroxide Propulsion Conferences. Civil scientists and organizations like ESA, NASA and Russian organizations cooperate openly and peacefully in the field.
This article was updated on November 30th, 2007