Grocery Store Rocket Fuel: Don’t Try This At Home!

It seems like whenever the topic of rocket science comes up, the conversation quickly shifts to that of rocket fuels. As discussed in the excellent [Scott Manley] video below the break, there are many rocket fuels that can be found in some way, state, or form at your local grocery or liquor store. The video itself is a reaction to some college students in Utah who caused an evacuation when the rocket fuel they were cooking up exploded.

[Scott] himself theorizes that the fuel they were cooking was Rocket Candy, a volatile mix of sugar and potassium nitrate that is known to go Kaboom on occasion. And as it turns out, the combination might not even be legal in your area because as much as it can be used as rocket fuel, it can also be used for other things that go boom.

So, what else at your local megamart can be used to get to orbit? [Scott] talks about different kinds of alcohols, gasses, cleaners- all things that can be used as rocket fuel. He also talks about all of the solid reasons you don’t want to do this at home.

If this type of things gets your molecules excited, you might enjoy a bit we posted recently about using another grocery store staple to save Martian colonists from being held back by gravity.

28 thoughts on “Grocery Store Rocket Fuel: Don’t Try This At Home!

  1. the term is “flame front speed”,and the whole rocketry game is
    devoted to keeping that speed under instantanious,otherwise known as boom,and then faster than the other guys,otherwise known as greater payload,there are a host of fantasticly energetic compounds that dont play nice,and go boom,and even more
    frustratingly,sometimes almost do a controlled burn,but are completely unsafe in anything over milligram amounts,and then
    sometimes toxic and poisoness,and or corosive,wildly expensive
    illegal,or all of the above.What keeps interest and developent of these compounds going is that they are orders of magnitude more energy dense than anything flying today.
    Bell labs and others did work long ago,though there is a recent uptick in interest and work,with all of the private rocketry going
    on,anf rocket startups in some unexpected locales.

      1. 17 tonnes of fuel, or about 90% of the total mass of the rocket to get a 2 ton payload into orbit.

        That’s equivalent to 4047 gallons of gasoline. And at 17 MPG, that same amount of fuel would drive my 2 ton car a little short of 70,000 miles!

  2. It would seem to me that there is a very very thing line between rocketry and playing with explosives. In fact it would be fairly accurate to say that rocketry is “playing with explosives”. In this day and age that is viewed in a dim light by almost everyone, especially law enforcement and government folks. That aside, almost everyone recognizes the inherent hazards involved with playing with explosives. It is an unforgiving realm and not kind to those who seek to learn by trial and error.

    1. The confusion and ignorance of law enforcement and government folks is really only a problem if you live in a high population density area. Explosives are not illegal. High explosives that detonate are and require strict licensing, but things that just burn fast are a part of everyday life.

      Yeah, ignorant idiots are going to think you’re “playing with explosives”. But this is not a forum of ignorant idiots. We all know this is just playing with rockets.

  3. Dear Tire Damage: you were probably looking in the wrong department for potassium nitrate at the grocery store. If your grocery store is large and has a lawn & garden department, you’d be able to find it there. It’s fertilizer.

      1. McVeigh used “prills and oil” which is ammonium nitrate fertilizer and diesel fuel. It’s probably the most commonly used explosive in quarry operations because it is cheap and very safe to handle. Needs a very strong charge to detonate it. It also has low brisance and doesn’t throw rock as far as dynamite will.

        1. Isn’t that low *loft*? AIUI brisance is shattering ability.

          The way I heard it explained once is that if you put explosives at the bottom of a ditch filled with rocks, a high loft / low brisance explosive will result in an empty ditch surrounded by rocks, while a high brisance / low loft explosive will give you a ditch full of sand.

          It seems to me that for quarry operations you’d want high brisance (to break the rocks) and low loft (to not throw them).

          I could have my terminology wrong, but I believe I have the concepts right.

    1. Potassium nitrate (saltpeter) was indeed used for curing meats long ago. It degrades to nitrite by some process in the meat. It is not allowed in the US where sodium nitrite is used instead. Unless you buy “uncured” meats which are preserved with cellery powder…which contain nitrites….

  4. The biggest risk when handling rocket candy is dripping it on your finger when you’re pouring the grains. Obviously you don’t want to make this stuff over an open flame, but even if you did the risk is a lot of soot and smoke — not an “explosion” as the author would like you to believe. Use an electric skillet and it’s pretty hard to create any kind of disaster.

  5. If you’re willing to do a lot of filtering and boiling then sacrifice some of your precious alcohol, you can get fairly pure potassium nitrate from composted horse manure, amongst other things.
    But it is a time consuming process.
    Going to the local pet shop and looking for pond water oxidizing tablets, they are 99% pure potassium chlorate, a very strong oxidizer, it makes plastic explosive, when mixed with a couple of other things you probably already have in your house. But the *Don’t try this at home* definitely applies there. But many things will explode. Even the powder in ABC fire extinguishers when mixed with the right thing, will detonate violently if melted. It’s nice to know if WW3 finds my country, I’ll give them a run for their money, but with great power comes great responsibility. Safety is key. Nobody wants lost eyes, ears and fingers.
    A couple of my favorite kitchen chemistry reactions don’t even explode, using red cabbage juice as a ph indicator is one. The other, cooking up bicarbonate of soda and cream of tartar to make piezoelectric Rochelle salt Chrystals.

    1. Potassium nitrate (KNO3) is easily available in the US from online vendors who specialize in supplying materials and chem’s to people who build fireworks as a hobby. Literally as low as $2.00 / lb. Rocketcandy isn’t capable of detonation, although with enough surface area exposed it can burn agressively. Back when I was 12, I made my first batch of sugar propellant following the Teleflite Corporations technical report “The Homemade 5¢ Sugar Rocket”. I bought my first jars of Saltpetre and Flowers of Sulfur from a local drug store, Long’s Drugs. Vary the proportions and create a mix that burns lean, viola smoke bomb composition. These same firework building enthusiasts often make their own bp as well.

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