Chemical Engineers Make Explosive Progress

Dec. 14, 2010
TNT gets a safer replacement and elastomeric material provides blast protection.

While it can safely be argued that chemical engineering and chemical engineers have a substantial input into most aspects of life today, Time magazine's awards for the top 50 innovations in 2010 highlights two examples with military flavor.


The first is a safer, more stable explosive that engineers tested and qualified at Picatinny Arsenal, N.J., as a replacement for TNT in U.S. Army projectiles. Traditional TNT is relatively unstable and can detonate when dropped or when a vehicle carrying it is hit by an improvised explosive device (IED) or a bullet.

Called IMX-101 (Insensitive Munitions Explosive 101), it packs the same punch as TNT, but is more thermally stable, according to Philip Samuels, a chemical engineer at Picatinny Arsenal's Armament Research, Development and Engineering Center (ARDEC).

Researchers spent four years working on the material, which is scheduled for production this year. IMX-101 is more expensive than TNT, with an initial price of about $8/lb, compared with $6/lb for the traditional explosive.

Picatinny selected the IMX-101 formula, developed by BAE Systems, from a group of 23 different formulas submitted to the Army by various government groups and, foreign and domestic companies. Researchers at Picatinny found BAE's formula to be the most cost-effective option that exceeded all the system tests designed to represent real hazards and threats soldiers face in combat.

Because of Picatinny's efforts to test, qualify and apply the new explosive to existing Army and Marines field artillery projectiles, soldiers will see IMX-101 in 155-mm M795 artillery projectiles in 2011. The new explosive is also being researched for use in other types of field artillery, another step towards the Army's intention to phase out its stockpile of traditional TNT.

"If you were involved in an incident near a traditional TNT projectile hit with a rocket propelled grenade (RPG) or an IED, you wouldn't be standing here today to tell about it," says Charlie Patel, a program management engineer for Project Manager Combat Ammunition Systems (PM-CAS) on the N.J. site. "But with IMX-101, all that would happen is the explosive would deflagrate (burn quickly), and the shell would break into a few pieces. You wouldn't have the big detonation that would wipe out the vehicle and driver or a whole storage area and crew."

"Because it's less sensitive, the Army can store more shells in a magazine, and store more in one building at a closer distance to the soldiers," notes Anthony DiStasio, ARDEC project officer. "It significantly reduces the logistics burden both here in the U.S. and overseas."

Ironically, the second military innovation in the Time awards involves blast protection as opposed to blast generation.

Created by flexible film and tape specialist Berry Plastics Corporation, Franklin, Mass., the X-Flex blast protection system is an innovative peel-and-stick solution that is designed specifically to absorb energy and mitigate debris hazards during a significant blast event.

Developed through a co-operative research and development agreement between the Engineer Research and Development Center (ERDC) of the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers, Champaign, Ill., and Engineered Protective Systems of Berry Plastics, this new stretch-and-catch system uses the technology of elastomeric material to retrofit walls and greatly enhance ability to mitigate secondary debris hazards associated with blast loads.

"In areas where threat risk is high, X-Flex helps provide a measure of safety that was previously unavailable," says Elizabeth A. Curran, Business Development Manager.

Rigorous full-scale testing of X-Flex has resulted in proven performance to specific threat levels. The fiber-reinforced polymer composite is engineered for adhesion to many surfaces, and performs well across a wide temperature range and diverse environmental conditions. X-Flex is moisture-, mold- and fungus-resistant, and the environmentally-friendly product contains no volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Furthermore, it is easy to transport and store, and is equally efficient to install.

"These are factors that are critical to our military personnel," adds Curran. "Unlike traditional methods for increased protection, which required specialized equipment, toxic materials, difficult transport and lengthy implementation through trained labor, X-Flex can be installed instantly — and performs as soon as it is installed. Two individuals can retrofit a 10-by-10-foot wall in a matter of minutes."

A custom adhesive system allows the patent pending X-Flex to be applied to the primed interior side of an exterior wall simply by removing the protective film liner and sticking the product to the wall. X-Flex is further supported by a simple fastener at the top and bottom of the wall at the floor and ceiling interface.

Seán Ottewell is Chemical Processing's Editor at Large. You can e-mail him at [email protected].

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