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2018 Main Fuel Valve – Liquid Rocket Engines (J-2X, RS-25, general)

Liquid Rocket Engines (J-2X, RS-25, general)

Tag: Main Fuel Valve

Inside the LEO Doghouse: The Art of

Expander Cycle Engines

If you go back several generations on my mother’s side of the family, you will nd
a famous artist named Charles Frederick Kimball.  Also on my mother’s side of
the family, in a di erent branch, a couple of generations later, there was a
professional commercial artist.  On my father’s side, my grandmother was a
wonderful artist who painted mostly landscapes of the Mohawk and Hudson River
valleys in upstate New York.  And, of course, I’m married to an extremely talented
artist.  You would think with those bloodlines and that much exposure, I’d have a
just bit of artistic ability myself.  You would be wrong.  I love art.  I just can’t make

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The closest thing that I come to visual expression is con ned to Microsoft
PowerPoint creations.  However, within that narrow arena, particularly when it
comes to engineering subjects, there is still fun to be had.  What we’re going to do
for this article is undertake one of my favorite pseudo-artistic hobbies and play
with expander cycle engine schematics.

So, let’s start with a simple, happy little cycle called the Closed Expander Cycle. 
Most of what you need to know about this cycle is in the name.  First, it is closed. 
That means that all of the propellants that come into the engine leave by going
through the throat of the main combustion chamber thereby yielding the greatest
chemical e ciency available.  Later, we’ll see that the opposite of “closed” is
“open.”  Second, it is an expander.  That means that turbomachinery is driven by
propellants that picked up heat energy from cooling circuits in the main
combustion chamber and nozzle.  Typically, expander cycle engines use cryogenic
propellants so that when these propellants are heated they change from liquid-
like uids to gas-like uids.  Turbines very e ciently make use of gas-like drive
uids.  (Note that I keep referring to “ uids” rather than simply liquids and
gases.  That’s because it’s usually a good idea to deal with supercritical uids in
cooling tubes or channels.  Phase changes can be unpredictable and lead to some
odd pressure pro les.)

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Above is a Microsoft PowerPoint masterpiece illustrating the Closed Expander

Cycle rocket engine.  Fuel and oxidizer come in from the stage and are put
through pumps to raise their pressure.  On the fuel side, the pump discharge is
routed through the main fuel valve (MFV) to the nozzle and the main combustion
chamber (MCC) cooling jackets.  I’ve not shown the actual routing here. 
Typically, the MCC is cooled rst and then, the now warmer fuel is used to cool
the nozzle.  The heat loads in the MCC are signi cantly higher than those in the
nozzle.  But whatever is the exact routing of the cooling uid, the discharge, now
full of energy picked up from the process of cooling, is fed into the turbines.  The
oxidizer turbine bypass valve (OTBV) shown in the diagram is a means for
controlling mixture ratio by moderating the power to the oxidizer turbine.  In
some cases, if you have only one mixture ratio setting for the engine, you might
be able to put an ori ce here rather than a valve.  The turbines are driven by the
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warm fuel and then the discharge of the turbines is fed through to the main
injector and then into the combustion zone.  On the oxidizer side, the routing is
much simpler.  The oxidizer pump discharge is plumbed through the main
oxidizer valve (MOV) directly into the main injector.  Within the MCC, you have
the combustion of your propellants, the resultant release of energy, the
generation of high-velocity combustion products, and the expulsion of these
products through the sonic MCC throat and out the supersonic nozzle.  Ta-da,
thrust is made!

The closed expander is one of the most simple engine cycles that has ever been
imagined.  The venerable RL10 engine rst developed in the 1950s and still ying
today is based on this cycle (with the slight twist that there is only one turbine
and the pumps are connected through a gear box – thereby eliminating the need
for the OTBV).  This simplicity is both the strength of the cycle and also it’s
limiting feature.  Consider the fact that all of the fuel – hydrogen in the case of
most expanders – gets pushed all of the way through the engine to nally end up
getting injected into the combustion chamber.  All that pushing translates to
pressure drops.  It means that the turbines don’t have that much pressure ratio to
deal with in terms of making power for the pumps.  In other words, the
downstream side of the turbine is the lowest pressure point in the cycle and that’s
the combustion chamber.  The result is that your chamber pressure can’t be very
high.  That means that the throat of your MCC is relatively large and then that
means the expansion ratio of your nozzle and nozzle extension start to get
limited simply by size and structural weight.

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Also, note that all of the power to drive the entire cycle is provided by the heat
picked up by the fuel in the MCC and nozzle cooling channels.  This then becomes
a limiting factor in terms of the overall power and thrust-class of the engine.  As
an engine gets bigger, at a given chamber pressure, the thrust level increases to
the second power of the characteristic throat diameter, but the available surface
area to be used to pick up heat to power the cycle only increases by that
characteristic diameter to the rst power.  In other words, thrust is proportional
to “D-squared” but, to a rst order, turbine power is proportional to “D.”  Thus,
you can only get so big before you can’t get enough power to run the cycle.  One
means for overcoming this is to make the combustion chamber longer just to give
yourself more heat transfer surface area.  The European engine called the Vinci
follows this approach.  But even this approach is limiting if taken too far since a
chamber that is too long makes for less e cient combustion and, of course, a
longer combustion chamber also starts to get awfully darn heavy.

So, how big can a closed expander cycle rocket engine be?  Well, that’s a point of
recurring dispute and debate.  I can only give my opinion.  I would say that the
closed expanding cycle engine most useful and most practical when kept to a
thrust level of less than approximately 35,000 pounds-force.

Getting back to the notion of artistic expression, what then are the possible
variations on the theme of the expander cycle engine?  Well, the themes and
variations are used to explore and potentially overcome perceived shortfalls in
the Closed Expander Cycle.  The rst in this series is the Closed Split Expander,
the portrait of which is below:

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The shortfall being addressed here is the fact that in the Closed Expander Cycle all
of the fuel was pushed all over the engine resulting in large pressure losses.  In
this case, some – usually most – of the fuel is pumped to a lower pressure
through a rst stage in the pump and then another portion is pumped to a higher
pressure.  Thus, the fuel supply is “split” and that’s the origin of the name.  It is
this higher pressure stream, routed through the fuel coolant control valve (FCCV)
that is pushed all over the engine to cool the MCC and nozzle and to drive the
turbines.  The lower pressure stream is plumbed directly into the main injector. 
The theory is that by not requiring all of the fuel to be pumped up to the highest
pressure, you relieve the power requirements for the fuel turbine.  It is always the
hydrogen turbopump that eats up the biggest fraction of the power generated in
the cycle so this is an important notion.

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Does this cycle help?  Yes, some.  Maybe.  The balance of how much to split, what
that split does to the e ciency of the heat transfer (less ow means possibly
lower uid velocities, lower velocities means lower heat transfer, lower heat
transfer means less power…) makes it not always clear that you gain a whole lot
from the e ort of making the cycle more complex.  The portrait, however, is nice,
don’t you think?  It has a realistic air, a mid-century industrialist-utilitarian

Next, wishing to express yourself, you can address the age-old issue of the
intermediate seal in the oxidizer turbopump.  Take a good look at the rst two
schematics presented here.  You will see that the oxidizer pump is being driven by
a turbine using fuel as a working uid.  This is a very typical situation with rocket
engines, whether they’re expander cycle engine or other cycles.  For example, this
is the situation that you have in the RS-25 staged-combustion cycle engine and in
the J-2X gas-generator cycle engine.  What that situation sets up, however, is a
potential catastrophic failure.  You have fuel and oxygen in the same machine
along with spinning metal parts.  If the two uids mix and anything rubs, then
BOOM, you have a bad day.  So, inside oxidizer pumps you usually have a complex
sealing arrangement that includes a continuous helium barrier purge to keep the
two uids separate.  For the next expander cycle schematic, however, we can
eliminate the need for this complex, purged seal.

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This is a Closed Dual Expander Cycle.  It is still “closed” in that everything that
comes into the engine leaves through the MCC throat.  The new part is that it is
“dual” in that we now not only use the fuel to cool, but we also use the oxidizer. 
Thus, we use heated fuel to drive the fuel turbopump and heated oxidizer to drive
the oxidizer turbopump.  For this sketch, I’ve used a split con guration on the
oxidizer side with a portion of the ow being pumped to a lower pressure and
routed directly to the main injector and another portion pumped to a higher
pressure, routed through the oxidizer coolant control valve (OCCV), to be pushed
through the regeneratively cooled nozzle jacket and then through the oxidizer
turbopump turbine.  I’ve done this since you’re likely running the engine at a
mixture ratio (hydrogen/oxygen) of between 5 and 6.  You wouldn’t want to push
that much oxidizer through the nozzle cooling channels or tubes.  Now, if you’re

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designing an expander with something like methane as your fuel so your mixture
ratio lower, then maybe you can consider a non-split oxidizer side.

Note that with the dual expander approach I’ve gotten rid of the need for the
purged seal package in the oxidizer pump and thus I’ve eliminated a potential
catastrophic scenario (in the event of seal package failure).  However, I’ve
accomplished that at the cost of some cycle complexity.  Also, cooling with
oxidizer does not always make everyone happy.  Whenever you have a cooling
jacket (either smooth wall or tubes), you always have the potential for cracking
and leaking.  If you’re cooling with hydrogen, then a little leakage of extra
hydrogen into a fuel-rich environment is a relatively benign situation.  It happens
all of the time.  But what if you leak oxidizer into that fuel-rich combustion
product environment?  Well, some studies have suggested that you’ll be ne, but
it makes me just a little uneasy.  Then, also, you’re using heated oxidizer to drive
your turbine.  It can be done, but using something like oxygen to drive spinning
metal parts requires great care.  Under the wrong circumstances, a pure oxidizer
environment can burn with just about anything as fuel, including most metals. 
So, for all your e ort to eliminate the seal package in the oxidizer turbopump, it’s
not clear to me that you’ve made the situation that much safer.  However, despite
these potential drawback, the schematic portrait itself has a certain baroque feel
to it with the oxidizer side being positively rococo.

So, you’ve gone this far.  Why not take the nal plunge?  Introducing the “Closed
Dual Split Expander:”

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By now, having stepped through the progression, you understand how it is

“closed,” how it is “dual,” and how it is “split” (on both sides this time).  It’s not
practical in terms of being a recipe for a successful rocket engine design for a
variety of reasons balancing complexity versus intended advantages, but it’s an
impressive schematic.  To me, it has a gothic feel, almost like a medieval
cathedral with glorious ying buttresses and cascading ornamentation that just
leaves you dazzled with details.

So, we’ve wondered o and into the weeds of making expander cycle portraits for
the sake of their beauty rather than necessarily their useful practicality.  Let’s
return to the more practical realm and question that which has been common to
every cycle thus far presented.  It’s been the word “closed.”  Does an expander
cycle engine have to be a closed cycle?  Of course not!  Once we’ve made that
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observation, we come to a very practical option.  Introducing the “Open Expander


 This biggest di erence between this and every other previous schematic is the
fact that the working uid driving the turbines is dumped into the downstream
portion of the nozzle.  This is a much lower pressure point than the main
combustion zone.  The rst thing that most people think when they see this cycle
is that it must be a lower performance engine.  After all, you’re dumping
propellant downstream of the MCC throat.  And, yes, that is an inherent
ine ciency within this cycle.  Whenever you expel propellants in some way
bypassing the primary combustion, you lose e ciency.  However, here is what
you gain:  lots and lots of margin on your pressure budget.  Because I don’t have
to try to stu the turbine bypass into the combustion chamber, I can make my
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chamber pressure much higher.  In a practical sense, I can make it two or three
times higher than in a simple closed expander cycle engine.  What that allows me
to do is make the throat very small and that, in turn, provides for the opportunity
for a very high nozzle expansion ratio within reasonable size and structural
weight limits.  The very high expansion ratio means more exhaust acceleration
and, in this way, I can get almost all of the way back to the same kind of
performance numbers as a closed cycle despite the propellant dump.

Here, however, is the really cool part of the open expander cycle: I can leverage
the high pressure ratio across the turbines such that I can get more power out of a
given heat transfer level in the cooling jackets.  Up above, earlier in this article, I
suggested that there was a practical thrust limit for closed expanders of
approximately 35,000 pounds-force (my opinion) and this was due to the
geometric relationships between thrust and heat transfer surface area.  For an
open expander, I can design high-pressure-ratio turbines for which I don’t need
as much heat pick up to drive the pumps.  Thus, I can make a higher thrust
engine.  How high?  Well, my good friends from Mitsubishi Heavy Industries
(MHI) and the Japanese Space Exploration Agency (JAXA) have designed a version
of this cycle that gets up to 60,000 pounds-force of thrust and I’ve seen other
conceptual designs that go even higher.  The folks in Japan already y a smaller
version of this cycle in the LE-5B engine that generates 32,500 pounds-force. 
Note that they often refer to this cycle by another name that is very common in
the literature and that’s “expander bleed cycle,” with the “bleed” portion
describing the overboard dump into the nozzle.  I prefer the designation of
“open” since it clearly distinguishes it from the “closed” cycles illustrated

We have just about reached the end of this article but we have not reached the end
of possibilities with expander cycle engine schematics.  That’s what makes them

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fun and, in my mind, kind of like playing with art.  You can come up with all kinds
of combinations and additions.  For example, what if you took an expander cycle
and added a little burner?  Over and over I’ve said that the limiting factor for a
closed expander is the amount of heat that you pick up in the cooling jackets. 
Well, okay then, let’s add a small burner that has no other purpose than to make
the turbine drive gas hotter.  The result looks something like this:

This cycle has a gas generator but is not a gas generator cycle since the
combustion products from that GG are not used to drive the turbines directly. 
Rather, the GG exhaust is piped through a heat exchanger and then dumped
overboard.  Yes, you lose a little of your performance e ciency because it’s no
longer a closed cycle, but the GG ows can be small and what you get out of it is a

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boost in available turbomachinery power and therefore potential thrust.  That’s

my own little piece of artwork to demonstrate and anyone can do it.

Remember Bob Ross from Public Broadcasting?  I loved watching his show and, as
I’ve said, I can’t paint worth a lick.  But his show was relaxing to watch and listen
to and he was always so relentlessly supportive.  There never were any mistakes. 
Everything could be made all right in the end.  And anyone could make pretty
mountains and happy little trees.  I’d like to suggest that the same is true about
my little hobby of assembling happy little expander cycle schematics.  No, most
will probably never be built or y and the schematic portraits will probably never
grace the walls of MOMA, but that’s okay.  My artist grandmother used to tell me
that sometimes the purpose of doing art was not necessarily found in the end
product, but instead as part of the journey of creation.

March 24, 2014 / Liquid Rocket Engines / Bill Greene, Closed Dual Expander Cycle, Closed Dual
Split Expander, Closed Expander Cycle, Closed Expander Cycle rocket engine, cryogenic
propellants, LE-5B engine, Main Combustion Chamber, Main Fuel Valve, Marshall Space Flight
Center, Open Expander Cycle, Oxidizer Turbine Bypass Valve, RL10 rocket engine, supercritical
uids, turbines, Vinci / 17 Comments

J-2X Progress: Valves, Commands into


Everyone seems to like analogies between the composition of a rocket engine and
that of the human body.  These are often colorful but not always helpful.  In some

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cases, however, they work pretty well.

Okay, so let’s start with your body as it is.  Now, imagine removing all of your
bones.  Guess what?  You’re an immobile lump.  Even if your brain is sending
signals and your muscles are contracting, you’re not really moving anywhere.

This time, let’s instead start with your body as it is, but now imagine removing all
of the muscles and tendons that connect the muscles to the bone.  You’ve got a
central nervous system and you’ve got bones, but with nothing to ex, the chain
is broken and you’re stuck where you sit (assuming that you can still actually sit).

And, of course, if you instead start with your whole self and imagine removing
your brain and/or your central nervous system that connects your brain to your
muscles, again, you’ve achieved perfect immobility (i.e., you look like me on
Saturday afternoons during college football season).

The point is that in order for you to be up and about, shoveling snow, doing
laundry, playing pool, typing, whatever, you need both the command center that
gures out what signals to send — your brain — and you need things that turn
those signals into action — your muscles and tendons and bones.  In a rocket
engine, the analogue for the brain is the engine controller.  It is a computer that
receives instructions from the vehicle and sends out commands to the engine
pieces so as to ful ll those instructions.  The analogue for the muscles are the
valve actuation systems.  These are the things that “ ex” and cause movement. 
And the analogue for the bones, the nal e ectors that make things happen, are
the valves.
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The controller sends out signals and then the actuation system responds by
shuttling pressurized working uid — helium for J-2X though some engines use
hydraulic uid instead — where it needs to go so that the valves move and the
engine comes to life.  The engine goes from being a lump of inert, shiny metal to a
“living” beast of owing propellants, spinning turbomachinery, lots of re, and
thundering, rumbling thrust.

On the J-2X, there are 42 valves.  Most of this number is made up of small valves
like check valves, solenoid valves, and valves in small lines like the bleed lines. 
There are also a handful of big valves — the primary valves — that directly
control the ow of propellant and, in one case, combustion products along the
plumbing of the engine.  Each of these primary valves is connected to a valve
actuator, i.e., the muscle.  These valve actuators convert the energy of high
pressure helium gas into mechanical rotation of the valve.  This is accomplished
by pressurizing cavities and moving pistons and, in this way, the valve is pushed
opened or closed.  I’ve used this schematic shown below before, but it is useful
here as well since it illustrates the primary J-2X valves: Main Fuel Valve (MFV),
Main Oxidizer Valve (MOV), Gas Generator Fuel Valve (GGFV), Gas Generator
Oxidizer Valve (GGOV), and the Oxidizer Turbine Bypass Valve (OTBV).

The control logic for J-2X is relatively simple.  The whole subject of di erent
kinds of control logic is a good topic for a future article, but su ce it to say that
for normal operation the J-2X: starts on command, can change between two
power levels on command, and shuts down on command.  The control system is

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designed to do other things as well, including monitoring the health of the

engine, but these operations are the commanded functions.  Start and shutdown
can be simplistically thought of as: the valves open and the valves close.  It’s a bit
more complicated since the timing of opening and closing is extremely
important, but the open/close notion is basically true.  The oddball action is the
one consisting of changing power levels.  That is accomplished by controlling the
power to the oxidizer turbine via the OTBV.  This bypass valve e ectively allows
for limited, independent control of the two turbopumps.  By altering the power to
the oxidizer turbopump (OTP), you can control the engine thrust level (and,
simultaneously, mixture ratio).

The OTBV for J-2X is designed and built by Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne (PWR),
the prime contractor for the whole engine.  In addition to being responsible for
the “oddball action” on the engine of changing power levels, it represents a
challenging design due to the range of operating conditions.  Unlike the other
primary valves on the engine that see, essentially, one narrow range of
environmental conditions, the OTBV has to function in temperatures approaching
420 degrees below zero Fahrenheit (liquid hydrogen conditions) immediately
prior to start and then, suddenly, within 1 second of ignition of the gas generator,
see temperatures approaching 750 degrees above zero Fahrenheit (combustion
products).  That broad range of operating conditions requires special design
considerations and special materials.  Not only do you have to worry about wear
and tear under such harsh conditions, but you also have to think about simple
operation under the extremes of thermal expansion.

The original, Apollo-era J-2 engine also had an OTBV, but it was used slightly
di erently and was designed much di erently.  It was a butter y valve whereas
the J-2X OTBV is a ball valve. 

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No, the valves shown in the picture are NOT rocket engine valves.  I can’t show
any internal workings of rocket engine valves.  In fact, I am not even allowed to
describe the general design details that make the J-2X OTBV kind of unique. 
However, the basic elements of rocket engine valve functionality for butter y and
ball valves are essentially the same as these water valves.  The biggest di erence
is the replacement of the handles with pneumatically driven actuators.  Back
during the Apollo era it would seem that butter y valves were most frequently
used, but after many years of usage on the Space Shuttle Main Engine, ball valves
are often preferred these days.  They generally require less torque to move and
they generate better ow characteristics and ow rate control capability.

The rst OTBV unit for use on the upcoming development engine testing for J-2X
is in the later phases of manufacturing at the PWR in Los Angeles.  All of the
individual piece parts are schedule to be complete by the beginning of February
and assembly will begin the middle of February.  The valve then will be integrated
the actuator and shipped to the NASA Stennis Space Center to be put on the rst

January 25, 2011 / Uncategorized / Gas Generator Fuel Valve, Gas Generator Oxidizer Valve, J-2X,
Main Fuel Valve, Main Oxidizer Valve, Marshall Space Flight Center, Oxidizer Turbine Bypass Valve,
oxidizer turbopump, rocket engine, Space Shuttle Main Engine, valves, William Greene / 6

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Liquid Rocket Engines (J-2X, RS-25, general)

National Aeronautics and Space Administration
NASA Official: Brian Dunbar
No Fear Act FOIA Privacy Office of Inspector General Agency Financial Reports
Contact NASA

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