Gas generator


A gas generator is a device for generating gas. A gas generator may create gas by a chemical reaction or from a solid or liquid source, when storing a pressurized gas is undesirable or impractical.

The term often refers to a device that uses a rocket propellant to generate large quantities of gas. The gas is typically used to drive a turbine rather than to provide thrust as in a rocket engine. Gas generators of this type are used to power turbopumps in rocket engines, in a gas-generator cycle.

It is also used by some auxiliary power units to power electric generators and hydraulic pumps.

Another common use of the term is in the industrial gases industry, where gas generators are used to produce gaseous chemicals for sale. For example, the chemical oxygen generator, which delivers breathable oxygen at a controlled rate over a prolonged period. During World War II, portable gas generators that converted coke to producer gas were used to power vehicles as a way of alleviating petrol shortages.

Other types include the gas generator in an automobile airbag, which is designed to rapidly produce a specific quantity of inert gas.

Common applications edit

As a power source edit

The V-2 rocket used hydrogen peroxide decomposed by a liquid sodium permanganate catalyst solution as a gas generator. This was used to drive a turbopump to pressurize the main LOX-ethanol propellants.[1] In the Saturn V F-1[2][3] and Space Shuttle main engine,[4] some of the main propellant was burned to drive the turbopump (see gas-generator cycle and staged combustion cycle). The gas generator in these designs uses a highly fuel-rich mix to keep flame temperatures relatively low.

The Space Shuttle auxiliary power unit[5] and the F-16 emergency power unit (EPU)[6][7] use hydrazine as a fuel. The gas drives a turbine which drives hydraulic pumps. In the F-16 EPU it also drives an electric generator.

Gas generators have also been used to power torpedoes. For example, the US Navy Mark 16 torpedo was powered by hydrogen peroxide.[8]

A concentrated solution of hydrogen peroxide is known as high-test peroxide and decomposes to produce oxygen and water (steam).


Hydrazine decomposes to mixtures of nitrogen, hydrogen and ammonia. The reaction is strongly exothermic and produces high volume of hot gas from small volume of liquid.


Many solid rocket propellant compositions can be used as gas generators.[9]

Inflation and fire suppression edit

Many automobile airbags use sodium azide for inflation (as of 2003).[10] A small pyrotechnic charge triggers its decomposition, producing nitrogen gas, which inflates the airbag in around 30 milliseconds. A typical airbag in the US might contain 130 grams of sodium azide.[11]

Similar gas generators are used for fire suppression.[12]

Sodium azide decomposes exothermically to sodium and nitrogen.


The resulting sodium is hazardous, so other materials are added, e.g. potassium nitrate and silica, to convert it to a silicate glass.

Oxygen generation edit

A chemical oxygen generator delivers breathable oxygen at a controlled rate over a prolonged period. Sodium, potassium, and lithium chlorates and perchlorates are used.

Generation of fuel gas edit

A device that converts coke or other carbonaceous material into producer gas may be used as a source of fuel gas for industrial use. Portable gas generators of this type were used during World War II to power vehicles as a way of alleviating petrol shortages.[13]

See also edit

References edit

  1. ^ Staff of the Select Committee on Astronautics and Space Exploration (2004) [1st pub. 1959]. "Propellants". Space Handbook: Astronautics and Its Applications (Report) (hypertext conversion ed.). Retrieved 2016-09-23.
  2. ^ Sutton, George P. (1992). Rocket Propulsion Elements (6th ed.). Wiley. pp. 212–213. ISBN 0-471-52938-9.
  3. ^ "F-1 Engine Fact Sheet" (PDF). NASA. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2016-04-13.
  4. ^ "Main Propulsion System (MPS)" (PDF). Shuttle Press Boeing, NASA & United Space Alliance. October 6, 1998. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2012-02-04. Retrieved December 7, 2011.
  5. ^ "Auxiliary Power Units". Human Space Flight - The Shuttle. Archived from the original on 2001-05-04. Retrieved 2016-09-26.
  6. ^ Suggs; Luskus; Kilian; Mokry (1979). Exhaust Gas Composition of the F-16 Emergency Power Unit (Report). USAF school of aerospace medicine. SAM-TR-79. Archived from the original on June 3, 2018.
  7. ^ "F-16 chemical leak sends 6 airmen to hospital". Air Force Times. Associated press. August 26, 2016. Retrieved 2016-09-23.
  8. ^ Jolie, E.W. (1978). A Brief History of U.S. Navy Torpedo Development (Report). Naval Underwater Systems Center, Newport. p. 83 – via Maritime.Org.
  9. ^ Sutton 1992, pp. 441–443
  10. ^ Betterton, Eric A. (2003). "Environmental Fate of Sodium Azide Derived from Automobile Airbags (Abstract)". Critical Reviews in Environmental Science and Technology. 33 (4): 423–458. doi:10.1080/10643380390245002. S2CID 96404307.
  11. ^ "How do air bags work?". Scientific American. Retrieved 2016-09-22.
  12. ^ Yang, Jiann C.; Grosshandler, William L. (28 June 1995). Solid Propellant Gas Generators: An Overview and Their Application to Fire Suppression (Report). NIST. NISTIR 5766.
  13. ^ Lord Barnby (1941-07-16). "PRODUCER GAS FOR TRANSPORT. (Hansard, 16 July 1941)". Parliamentary Debates (Hansard). Retrieved 2014-05-26.