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Evolution of Propellants

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Propellant materials are the evolutionary product of a basic tenet in weapon technology: energy must be stored for later use. The concept of a propellant is that energy can be stored in chemical form, possibly years before it is ultimately released. This demands a material that is reasonably stable, compact, and portable.

The exact date and place of the invention of black powder, the first propellant, is unknown. It is possible that the development occurred independently at multiple locations over a two- to three-hundred-year time period. It is probable that, given the similarity of formulations, gunpowder was invented in a single location and the technology was exported and spread by early explorers.

It is commonly accepted that the Chinese were among the first to discover that certain materials, blended in the correct proportions and ignited, could propel a rocket or explode to produce a loud report.

A simple rocket is a tube filled with a propellant material, closed at one end and open at the other. The gas produced by the burning propellant spews from the open end and thrusts the rocket in the direction of the closed end. It is simple to imagine that some experimenter conceived the idea of turning the system around. The bodies of ancient rockets likely gave birth to the concept of the first gun barrels.

There are a number of materials that can store chemical energy and convert it to heat and gas for propulsive purposes. Most early experiments focused on blends of charcoal, sulfur, and an oxidizing agent. One of the most abundant, naturally occurring oxidizers is potassium nitrate (KNO3), known to the ancients as saltpeter, niter (or nitre), and petral stone, among others.

Early propellants were used for entertainment and religious rites (fireworks), fire starting, and moving material (blasting) for a long time before the concept of a fixed, chemical-filled tube launching a projectile was conceived. The first military use was for blasting through gates and walls. The device used for this purpose was the petard.

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