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How we sent man to the moon

The story of a humble chemical which helped to open up the universe

Scientific advances are pushing us ever closer to returning to the moon, putting a human on Mars and sending tourists into space.

But did you know that AkzoNobel played a key role in sending some of the first astronauts into orbit? In fact, the Apollo missions wouldn’t have got off the ground without us.

Because we supplied a crucial chemical which helped to trigger the blast that sent NASA’s Saturn V rockets soaring – and it’s something we continue to supply to this day.

The chemical in question is a blend of TEB (triethylborane) and TEAL (triethylaluminum), which we refer to as TEB/TEAL 85/15 and the rocket industry calls TEA-TEB. It’s produced at our Battleground site in La Porte, Texas, in the US.

Here’s how it works: TEB and TEAL are both metal atoms (boron or aluminum) holding onto three hydrocarbon molecules (tri-ethyl) that easily break apart when provoked. The two chemicals instantaneously burst into flame upon contact with oxygen.

In the case of a rocket launch, the fire is set intentionally. To start a rocket engine, liquid oxygen is flowed through the rocket injector into the chamber from the vehicle's tank. The TEB/TEAL combination is injected into the chamber to create ignition and then kerosene is flowed in from the vehicle tank to start burning. As the flows are increased, the rocket launches.

“We light the candle, so to speak,” explains Chuck Kaloczi from AkzoNobel’s Polymer Chemistry business. “This technology has been around since the 1960s and is a very dependable way to ignite rocket fuel.

“If you watch the launches carefully, you’ll see a green flash of light before ignition and lift-off. That's our chemical – the boron in the TEB is what causes the green flame when the engines start.”

The Apollo missions may have ended decades ago, but with Mars looming large and visionaries like Elon Musk developing reliable rockets to bring ordinary citizens to outer space and back, rocket science appears to be very much back in vogue.