Chemistry In Action…at a Cusomer’s Facility

In addition to providing insights into the US ammunition industry, EXPLOINSIGHTS, Inc. provides occasional hands-on services to support Customer requirements. These services can take many different forms, and today we’re going to provide a small window into some actual hands-on chemistry support we performed for one of our customers.

The background to this is that our customer is representing a major US defense stakeholder, and they were cooperatively exchanging information with another defense organization. One party (‘A’) wanted to gain some actual experience in making some material on lab-scale, and the other party ((‘B’) sought information on an ammunition design in support of a potential US ammunition product competition from party ‘A’. So party ‘A’ had what Party ‘B’ needed, and vice-versa.

How do you execute such a trade? Enter EXPLOINSIGHTS, Inc., who was afforded the role to provide the on-site services needed for the hands-on support for making lab-scale quantities of material. Providing independent experienced support was of course key to making this successful. Details of the work cannot be disclosed here, but for this article the fine details are unimportant. The result of the cooperative arrangments was that EXPLOINSIGHTS, Inc. performed on-site synthesis of material which helped everyone achieve their goals.

But working in a Customer’s lab presents challenges in terms of process (knowing the protocol, operation, safety-procedures etc.) and documentation (what to record, and how to manage.

Providing a one-stop shop for hands-on practical support at Customers’ facilities does not come without expertise and good practices.

The key to successfully working effectively and efficiently at a customers’ facility is communication: You have to go to great lengths to explain what you are proposing, and how you propose to do it; to give the customers and stakeholders a comfortable opportunity to review the proposed work and make sure it aligns with their business goals and their internal procedures and protocols. EXPLOINSIGHTS, Inc. is proud of our unblemished support record, and the fact that we get invited back to provide additional support is, we think, a good testimoney to the work we perform.

And it’s also fair to say we really enjoy nitration chemistry! The picture shown above is of one of our real synthesis experiements that produced materials used to satsify the cooperative agreement.

An exhibit of the material made at a Customer’s facilities by EXPLOINSIGHTS, Inc. is shown to he right. These are samples of actual product drying in an over as part of an official preperation and testing procedure.

It might be hard to see how, but this showcases how EXPLOINSIGHTS, Inc. works with US Industry cooperatively in partnership with with the US Government to help the US Army get better products!

At The Summit

In spring 2016, EXPLOINSIGHTS was invited to participate on the Industry Panel for the annual National Defense Industrial Association’s (NDIA) Munitions Executive Summit (MES).

These events have an interesting past: they last for about 1.5 hours, and the idea is that selected employees from companies with a background relevant to the “theme” of the conference are invited to give a short briefing on their perspective of said conference theme.  What has made these “interesting” is that some speakers give great briefings that get you to think, while others simply use the session as an opportunity to promote their company – “We are X, located in places a, b and c; we make and provide these widgets and these services, and we are brilliant“.

The theme for the MES this year was “Munitions Operations in a Complex Business Environment“:



EXPLOINSIGHTS Inc. was asked to provide a perspective of the Government-owned Contractor Operated (GOCO) facilities versus private Company Owned Company Operated (COCO) facilities.

For those not in-the-know, the subject of “GOCO v COCO” is hotly debated in both industry and government circles, and with controversial positions from some stakeholders at times.  A recipe for an interesting Industry Panel discussion!

EXPLOINSIGHTS invitation was based on the CEO’s (Andrew Wilson) experience at working at both GOCO and COCO facilities in the field of energetic materials and ammunition (Andrew’s experience is unique, as he performed that role in both the UK (early career) and USA (since 1999).  Unsurprisingly, Andrew had an opinion on the subject, but what probably caught many people off-guard is that Andrew’s view was NOT (as is common for these events) influenced by the fact that he was now a COCO employee (normally, COCO stakeholders support the COCO’s, and GOCO stakeholders of course support the GOCO – partisan like).  Not today:

A full copy of the Munitions Executive Summit briefing, which includes the EXPLOINSIGHTS briefing developed and presented by Andrew, is available from here or here.  Andrew’s briefing explained how he personally is strongly in favor of GOCO facilities (even though he now does NOT work at one, so that makes him instantly a rare-person at these events – arguing FOR a national capability that does not provide employment).  He made the case that military grade Energetic Materials (propellants & explosives) AND the resulting ammunition products are not commodities and should not be treated as such, because free-world “market forces” are not the driving forces behind conflict and thus the need to defend a nation against an aggressor.  Andrew said that trying to treat ammunition as a commodity and allowing for a “decline” in a nations ability to make lethal ammunition because “demand is low today” is tantamount to giving up your place on the world stage.  There are no buggy-whip producers today, and that’s OK because we don’t need them to beat bad-guys trying to kill us.  But if you stop buying ammunition today because we are at peace or, as Andrew argued, close down a power-house ammunition plant because we don’t need the volumes today then you better hope you NEVER need them EVER again because you cannot re-establish them overnight.  And private COCO industry simply cannot turn-up the production dial and make 50-times more of what you are buying simply because you have a conflict that no-one expected.  So Andrew came out strongly in favor of retaining GOCO’s and investing in them.  And unsurprisingly, that remains his position today too.

As part of his presentation, Andrew contrasted the state of affairs of the US v UK energetic materials industrial capabilities: the US has two very large GOCO plants that produce propellants and explosives.  These are expensive to own and maintain, even by government spending standards; but they exist and they can produce a LOT of energetic material relatively quickly.  Contrasting that, the UK closed its indigenous propellant and explosive capabilities at the turn of the century.  This was effectively a COMPANY decision, not a government decision; And today, Britain buys explosives from France, and propellants from Germany.  Andrew says he often wonders how that sits with UK Generals and military strategists now.  And the recent BREXIT decision is not likely to make that a more palatable strategy going forward.  Andrew says Watch to see WHEN Britain changes its mind, and learns that ammunition and explosives are NOT commodities after all!

Andrew explains that after his talk, during which he got a lot of questions (they ran out of time), he got a lot of additional questions and feedback during the subsequent conference breaks regarding his part of the briefing.  He explains there were company and US government officials that “wanted to hug me”, but also one company official wanted to “stab me in the eye with a spear”.  By Andrew’s assessment, that meant he got their attention, which was his goal.

High-Nitrogen Energetic Materials SUCK (…energy)

I have very mixed feelings about computer modelling.  On the one hand, it makes so much sense to run some code to help you predict and better understand some aspect of your work (or life).: “Click”; here’s what it looks like with this option.  “Click”, here it is with one more.  Such a useful thing to be able to do.

But like most things in our lives, they can be taken for granted so easily.  There’s sometimes too much reliance on what the computer calculates; or what I refer to as the “It must be right if the computer says-so” syndrome.

That’s what I believes is happening in the energetic materials world with high-Nitrogen containing compounds right now.  Scientists run CHEETAH or some other hydro-code model and they find that high Nitrogen molecules have decent density and high detonation velocity because that’s what was predicted by A COMPUTER MODEL.  My issue with that is that Nitrogen is a less-than-useful gas for ammunition products.  It is actually a negative contributor as it sucks-up energy by absorbing the heat released in an explosive event.  Sure, this gives rise to a significant expansion in volume and hence latent potential for driving blast over-pressure, but Nitrogen doesn’t actually release any heat when it’s made.  And as it expands, it more rapidly absorbs and dissipates the energy originally released during an explosives event.

Compare that with water (in the gaseous state) and oxides of Carbon, which release a lot of thermal energy during their formation: they fuel their expansion which makes them so much better as ammunition payload decomposition products.

Case in point: Nitrotriazolone (NTO) – yes, it’s the chicken-wired molecule shown at the top of this posting.  Brownie points (but no cash prize) to you if you knew that!  It’s a great explosive.  It truly is.  Insensitive as you can ask for relative to it’s main competition: RDX.   If you review the computer generated performance data, you will see that NTO is awesome: high density, similar detonation velocity to RDX.  What is not to love?  In my early days as a formulator, I was fooled: I thought NTO would be replace RDX.  It took three years and a lot of humble-pie before I realized my performance models were over-estimating the USEFUL energy you can get out of NTO.  These models have “equations of state”, and they are ALL an estimate.  All of them.  None of them are right.  When NTO is formulated into a main-charge filling, the performance is ALWAYS less than stellar versus the model.  Why…? NITROGEN.  There’s a PBX developed in the UK that went nowhere because of this: the performance was too poor, even though we had great printouts to tell us that the performance was solid.  Real performance data from real measurements made by people that know what they were doing convinced me…NTO under-delivers when it comes to USEFUL explosives output!

Take-away – Nitrogen: great for automobile air-bag gas generator payloads, not so good for lethally driving metal in a detonation.  Modelers, please rethink what your hydrocode says; don’t believe your equations of state just because you can.

Andrew Wilson
#Opinion 🙂

Hello world!

Welcome to EXPLOINSINGHTS Inc. web-site
This is my first ever posting here, and the concept of a blog is itself an experiment.  The intention is to use this site to share things that EXPLOINSIGHTS Inc. cares about – both from a customer and stakeholder perspective:

  • Information on the services provided by EI to the ammunition and energetic materials community;
  • Insights and opinions on the ammunition and energetic materials industry.