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A propellant (or propellent) is a mass that is expelled from a vehicle, such as a rocket, in such a way as to create a thrust in accordance with Newton's third law of motion, and "propel" the vehicle forward. The engine that expels the propellant is called a reaction engine. Although the term "propellant" is often used in chemical rocket design to describe a combined fuel/propellant, propellants should not be confused with the fuel that is used by an engine to produce the energy that expels the propellant. Even though the byproducts of substances used as fuel are also often used as a reaction mass to create the thrust, such as with a chemical rocket engine, propellant and fuel are two distinct concepts.


In electrically powered spacecraft, electricity is used to accelerate the propellant. An electrostatic force may be used to expel positive ions, or the Lorentz force may be used to expel negative ions and electrons as the propellant. Electothermal engines use the electromagnetic force to heat low molecular weight gases (e.g. hydrogen, helium, ammonia) into a plasma and expel the plasma as propellant. In the case of a resistojet rocket engine, the compressed propellant is simply heated using resistive heating as it is expelled to create more thrust.

In chemical rockets and aircraft, fuels are used to produce an energetic gas that can be directed through a nozzle, thereby producing thrust. In rockets, the burning of rocket fuel produces an exhaust, and the exhausted material is usually expelled as a propellant under pressure through a nozzle. The exhaust material may be a gas, liquid, plasma, or a solid. In powered aircraft without propellers such as jets, the propellant is usually the product of the burning of fuel with atmospheric oxygen so that the resulting propellant product has more mass than the fuel carried on the vehicle.

The propellant or fuel may also simply be a compressed fluid, with the potential energy that is stored in the compressed fluid used to expel the fluid as the propellant. The energy stored in the fluid was added to the system when the fluid was compressed, such as compressed air. The energy applied to the pump or thermal system that is used to compress the air is stored until it is released by allowing the propellant to escape. Compressed fluid may also be used only as energy storage along with some other substance as the propellant, such as with a water rocket, where the energy stored in the compressed air is the fuel and the water is the propellant.

Proposed photon rockets would use the relativistic momentum of photons to create thrust. Even though photons do not have mass, they can still act as a propellant because they move at relativistic speed, i.e., the speed of light. In this case Newton's third Law of Motion is inadequate to model the physics involved and relativistic physics must be used.

In chemical rockets, chemical reactions are used to produce energy which creates movement of a fluid which is used to expel the products of that chemical reaction (and sometimes other substances) as propellants. For example, in a simple hydrogen/oxygen engine, hydrogen is burned (oxidized) to create H2O and the energy from the chemical reaction is used to expel the water (steam) to provide thrust. Often in chemical rocket engines, a higher molecular mass substance is included in the fuel to provide more reaction mass.

Rocket propellant may be expelled through an expansion nozzle as a cold gas, that is, without energetic mixing and combustion, to provide small changes in velocity to spacecraft by the use of cold gas thrusters, usually as maneuvering thrusters.

To attain a useful density for storage, most propellants are stored as either a solid or a liquid.

Rocket propellants

Propellants may be energized by chemical reactions to expel solid, liquid or gas. Electrical energy may be used to expel gases, plasmas, ions, solids or liquids. Photons may be used to provide thrust via relativistic momentum.

Chemically powered

Solid propellant

Propellants that explode in operation are of little practical use currently, although there have been experiments with Pulse Detonation Engines. Also the newly synthesized bishomocubane based compounds are under consideration in the research stage as both solid and liquid propellants of the future. [1] [2]


Solid fuel/propellants are used in forms called grains. A grain is any individual particle of fuel/propellant regardless of the size or shape. The shape and size of a grain determines the burn time, amount of gas, and rate of produced energy from the burning of the fuel and, as a consequence, thrust vs time profile.

There are three types of burns that can be achieved with different grains.

Progressive burn
Usually a grain with multiple perforations or a star cut in the center providing a lot of surface area.
Degressive burn
Usually a solid grain in the shape of a cylinder or sphere.
Neutral burn
Usually a single perforation; as outside surface decreases the inside surface increases at the same rate.

There are four different types of solid fuel/propellant compositions:

Single-based fuel/propellant
A single based fuel/propellant has nitrocellulose as its chief explosives ingredient. Stabilizers and other additives are used to control the chemical stability and enhance its properties.
Double-based fuel/propellant
Double-based fuel/propellants consist of nitrocellulose with nitroglycerin or other liquid organic nitrate explosives added. Stabilizers and other additives are also used. Nitroglycerin reduces smoke and increases the energy output. Double-based fuel/propellants are used in small arms, cannons, mortars and rockets.
Triple-based fuel/propellant
Triple-based fuel/propellants consist of nitrocellulose, nitroguanidine, nitroglycerin or other liquid organic nitrate explosives. Triple-based fuel/propellants are used in cannons.
Composites do not utilize nitrocellulose, nitroglycerin, nitroguanidine or any other organic nitrate as the primary constituent. Composites usually consist of a fuel such as metallic aluminum, a combustible binder such as synthetic rubber or HTPB, and an oxidizer such as ammonium perchlorate. Composite fuel/propellants are used in large rocket motors. In some applications, such as the US SLBM Trident II missile, nitroglycerin is added to the aluminum and ammonium perchlorate composite as an energetic plasticizer.

Liquid propellant

In rockets, three main liquid bipropellant combinations are used: cryogenic oxygen and hydrogen, cryogenic oxygen and a hydrocarbon, and storable propellants. [3]

Cryogenic oxygen-hydrogen combination system
Used in upper stages and sometimes in booster stages of space launch systems. This is a nontoxic combination. This gives high specific impulse and is ideal for high-velocity missions
Cryogenic oxygen-hydrocarbon propellant system
Used for many booster stages of space launch vehicles as well as a smaller number of second stages. This combination of fuel/oxidizer has high density and hence allows for a more compact booster design.
Storable propellant combinations
Used in almost all bipropellant low-thrust, auxiliary or reaction control rocket engines, as well as in some in large rocket engines for first and second stages of ballistic missiles. They are instant-starting and suitable for long-term storage.

Propellant combinations used for liquid propellant rockets include:

Common monopropellant used for liquid rocket engines include:

  • Hydrogen peroxide
  • Hydrazine
  • Red fuming nitric acid (RFNA)

Electrically powered

Electrically powered reactive engines use a variety of usually ionized propellants, including atomic ions, plasma, electrons, or small droplets or solid particles as propellant.


If the acceleration is caused mainly by the Coulomb force (i.e. application of a static electric field in the direction of the acceleration) the device is considered electrostatic. The types of electrostatic drives and their propellants:


These are engines that use electromagnetic fields to generate a plasma which is used as the propellant. They use a nozzle to direct the energized propellant. The nozzle itself may be composed simply of a magnetic field. Low molecular weight gases (e.g. hydrogen, helium, ammonia) are preferred propellants for this kind of system. [6]


Electromagnetic thrusters use ions as the propellant, which are accelerted by the Lorentz force or by magnetic fields, either of which is generated by electicity:


Nuclear reactions may be used to produce the energy for the expulsion of the propellants. Many types of nuclear reactors have been used/proposed to produce electricity for electrical propulsion as outlined above. Nuclear pulse propulsion uses a series of nuclear explosions to create large amounts of energy to expel the products of the nuclear reaction as the propellant. Nuclear thermal rockets use the heat of a nuclear reaction to heat a propellant. Usually the propellant is hydrogen because the force is a function of the energy irrespective of the mass of the propellant, so the lightest propellant (hydrogen) produces the greatest specific impulse.


A photonic reactive engine uses photons as the propellant and their discrete relativistic energy to produce thrust.

See also

Related Research Articles

Rocket Missile or vehicle which flies using thrust from a reaction gas engine

A rocket is a spacecraft, aircraft, vehicle or projectile that obtains thrust from a rocket engine. Rocket engine exhaust is formed entirely from propellant carried within the rocket. Rocket engines work by action and reaction and push rockets forward simply by expelling their exhaust in the opposite direction at high speed, and can therefore work in the vacuum of space.

Spacecraft propulsion Method used to accelerate spacecraft

Spacecraft propulsion is any method used to accelerate spacecraft and artificial satellites. In-space propulsion exclusively deals with propulsion systems used in the vacuum of space and should not be confused with space launch or atmospheric entry.

Solid-propellant rocket Rocket with a motor that uses solid propellants

A solid-propellant rocket or solid rocket is a rocket with a rocket engine that uses solid propellants (fuel/oxidizer). The earliest rockets were solid-fuel rockets powered by gunpowder; they were used in warfare by the Chinese, Indians, Mongols and Persians, as early as the 13th century.

A monopropellant rocket is a rocket that uses a single chemical as its propellant.

A resistojet is a method of spacecraft propulsion that provides thrust by heating a, typically non-reactive, fluid. Heating is usually achieved by sending electricity through a resistor consisting of a hot incandescent filament, with the expanded gas expelled through a conventional nozzle.

Specific impulse is a measure of how efficiently a reaction mass engine creates thrust. For engines whose reaction mass is only the fuel they carry, specific impulse is exactly proportional to exhaust gas velocity.

Hypergolic propellant Type of rocket engine fuel igniter

A hypergolic propellant combination used in a rocket engine is one whose components spontaneously ignite when they come into contact with each other.

Air-augmented rockets use the supersonic exhaust of some kind of rocket engine to further compress air collected by ram effect during flight to use as additional working mass, leading to greater effective thrust for any given amount of fuel than either the rocket or a ramjet alone.

Monopropellants are propellants consisting of chemicals that release energy through exothermic chemical decomposition. The molecular bond energy of the monopropellant is released usually through use of a catalyst. This can be contrasted with bipropellants that release energy through the chemical reaction between an oxidizer and a fuel. While stable under defined storage conditions, monopropellants decompose very rapidly under certain other conditions to produce a large volume of its own energetic (hot) gases for the performance of mechanical work. Although solid deflagrants such as nitrocellulose, the most commonly used propellant in firearms, could be thought of as monopropellants, the term is usually reserved for liquids in engineering literature.

Dinitrogen tetroxide Chemical compound

Dinitrogen tetroxide, commonly referred to as nitrogen tetroxide (NTO), and occasionally (usually among ex-USSR/Russia rocket engineers) as amyl, is the chemical compound N2O4. It is a useful reagent in chemical synthesis. It forms an equilibrium mixture with nitrogen dioxide. Its molar mass is 92.011 g/mol.

Rocket engine Reaction engine using stored propellant(s) to produce thrust

A rocket engine uses stored rocket propellants as the reaction mass for forming a high-speed propulsive jet of fluid, usually high-temperature gas. Rocket engines are reaction engines, producing thrust by ejecting mass rearward, in accordance with Newton's third law. Most rocket engines use the combustion of reactive chemicals to supply the necessary energy, but non-combusting forms such as cold gas thrusters and nuclear thermal rockets also exist. Vehicles propelled by rocket engines are commonly called rockets. Rocket vehicles carry their own oxidizer, unlike most combustion engines, so rocket engines can be used in a vacuum to propel spacecraft and ballistic missiles.

Liquid-propellant rocket Rocket engine that uses liquid fuels and oxidizers

A liquid-propellant rocket or liquid rocket utilizes a rocket engine that uses liquid propellants. Liquids are desirable because they have a reasonably high density and high specific impulse (Isp). This allows the volume of the propellant tanks to be relatively low. It is also possible to use lightweight centrifugal turbopumps to pump the rocket propellant from the tanks into the combustion chamber, which means that the propellants can be kept under low pressure. This permits the use of low-mass propellant tanks that do not need to resist the high pressures needed to store significant amounts of gases, resulting in a low mass ratio for the rocket.

The highest specific impulse chemical rockets use liquid propellants. They can consist of a single chemical or a mix of two chemicals, called bipropellants. Bipropellants can further be divided into two categories; hypergolic propellants, which ignite when the fuel and oxidizer make contact, and non-hypergolic propellants which require an ignition source.

Hydroxylammonium nitrate Chemical compound

Hydroxylammonium nitrate or hydroxylamine nitrate (HAN) is an inorganic compound with the chemical formula [NH3OH][NO3]. It is a salt derived from hydroxylamine and nitric acid. In its pure form, it is a colourless hygroscopic solid. It has potential to be used as a rocket propellant either as a solution in monopropellants or bipropellants. Hydroxylammonium nitrate (HAN) based propellants are a viable and effective solution for future green propellant based missions, as it offers 50% higher performance for a given propellant tank compared to commercially used hydrazine.

Electrically powered spacecraft propulsion Type of propulsion system

An electrically powered spacecraft propulsion system uses electrical, and possibly also magnetic fields, to change the velocity of a spacecraft. Most of these kinds of spacecraft propulsion systems work by electrically expelling propellant at high speed.

Cryogenic rocket engine

A cryogenic rocket engine is a rocket engine that uses a cryogenic fuel and oxidizer, that is, both its fuel and oxidizer are gases liquefied and stored at very low temperatures. These highly efficient engines were first flown on the US Atlas-Centaur and were one of the main factors of NASA's success in reaching the Moon by the Saturn V rocket.

Rocket propellant Chemical or mixture used as fuel for a rocket engine

Rocket propellant is the reaction mass of a rocket. This reaction mass is ejected at the highest achievable velocity from a rocket engine to produce thrust. The energy required can either come from the propellants themselves, as with a chemical rocket, or from an external source, as with ion engines.

A thermal rocket is a rocket engine that uses a propellant that is externally heated before being passed through a nozzle to produce thrust, as opposed to being internally heated by a redox (combustion) reaction as in a chemical rocket.

Thruster is a propulsive device used by spacecraft for station keeping, attitude control, in the reaction control system, or long-duration, low-thrust acceleration. A vernier engine or gimbal engine is a particular case used on launch vehicles where a secondary rocket or other high thrust device is used to control the attitude of the rocket while the primary thrust engine is fixed to the rocket and supplies the principal amount of thrust.

NASA's Pathfinder Technology Demonstrator (PTD) Project will test the operation of a variety of novel technologies on a type of nanosatellites known as CubeSats, providing significant enhancements to the performance of these versatile spacecraft. Each of the five planned PTD missions consist of a 6-unit (6U) CubeSat with expandable solar arrays.


  1. Lal, Sohan; Rajkumar, Sundaram; Tare, Amit; Reshmi, Sasidharakurup; Chowdhury, Arindrajit; Namboothiri, Irishi N. N. (December 2014). "Nitro-Substituted Bishomocubanes: Synthesis, Characterization, and Application as Energetic Materials". Chemistry: An Asian Journal. 9 (12): 3533–3541. doi:10.1002/asia.201402607. PMID   25314237.
  2. Lal, Sohan; Mallick, Lovely; Rajkumar, Sundaram; Oommen, Oommen P.; Reshmi, Sasidharakurup; Kumbhakarna, Neeraj; Chowdhury, Arindrajit; Namboothiri, Irishi (2015). "Synthesis and energetic properties of high-nitrogen substituted bishomocubanes". J. Mater. Chem. A. 3 (44): 22118–22128. doi: 10.1039/C5TA05380C .
  3. Sutton, George; Biblarz, Oscar (2001). Rocket Propulsion Elements. Willey. ISBN   9781601190604. OCLC   75193234.
  4. Hutchinson, Lee (2013-04-14). "New F-1B rocket engine upgrades Apollo-era design with 1.8 M lbs of thrust". ARS technica. Retrieved 2013-04-15. The most efficient fuel and oxidizer combination commonly used today for chemical liquid rockets is hydrogen (fuel) and oxygen (oxidizer)," continued Coates. The two elements are relatively simple and they burn easily when combined—and even better, the result of their reaction is simple water.
  5. Hutchinson, Lee (2013-04-14). "New F-1B rocket engine upgrades Apollo-era design with 1.8 M lbs of thrust". ARS technica. p. 2. Retrieved 2013-04-15. Refined petroleum is not the most efficient thrust-producing fuel for rockets, but what it lacks in thrust production it makes up for in density. It takes less volume of RP-1 to impart the same thrust force on a vehicle, and less volume equates to reduced stage size. ... A smaller booster stage means much less aerodynamic drag as the vehicle lifts off from near sea-level and accelerates up through the more dense (thicker) part of the atmosphere near the earth. The result of a smaller booster stage is it allows a more efficient ascent through the thickest part of the atmosphere, which helps improve the net mass lifted to orbit.
  6. "Native Electric Propulsion Engines Today" (in Russian). Novosti Kosmonavtiki. 1999. Archived from the original on 6 June 2011.