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Ammunition becomes ecological: From the foodstuffs industry to military applications

Environmental protection is ubiquitous in our everyday life and also has an impact on the production of ammunition. The department Explosive Materials and Ammunition Surveillance (WTE) is involved, in cooperation with industry, in the transition to «ecological» ammunition, the aim of which is to be more eco-friendly and less harmful to people.

20.05.2020 | armasuisse Science and Technology, Explosives and Ammunition Surveillance

Grüne Munition
Violet, turmeric and sunflower oil as potential stabilisers

New regulations and the consequences for industry

The regulation REACH (Registration for Evaluation and Authorisation of Chemicals) which came into effect on June 1, 2007, aims to ensure a high level of protection for human health and the environment through optimised determination of the properties of chemical substances. Based on these provisions introduced by the European Commission, the responsibility for proof of chemical safety is transferred to the manufacturer. In the absence of such proof, the manufacturer may no longer distribute their product in the European Union. Although Switzerland is not directly affected, adaptation to these provisions is required with regard to the trade relations with neighbouring countries. The European Chemicals Agency has a list of the substances that give cause for concern, which is regularly updated as soon as new scientific data is published. All sectors of industry are affected by this. The armament industry, in particular the area of ammunition, is no exception here, even if exemption clauses are provided for defence purposes.

Rapid breakdown of powders without stabilisers

Ammunition powder is comprised of various types of molecules which give it its properties. The main component of the ammunition powder, nitrocellulose, is unfortunately characterised by limited stability. Without the addition of a stabiliser, the powder decomposes very quickly, which restricts the life span of the ammunition and can lead to severe accidents. In order to be able to guarantee the safety of users as well as the storage, the addition of a substance which prevents decomposition and enables the life span of the ammunition to be extended is therefore required. The foodstuffs industry takes a similar approach if preservatives such as sugar or salt are added to foodstuffs, in order to maintain the quality of a product over a longer period of time. The regulations regarding toxicity are strict for good reason. The stabilisers for ammunition powder do not have to meet any toxicity criteria. Here, the focus is mainly on efficiency. Diphenylamine, for example, was used for the first time in 1909 and is still the most frequently used stabiliser today. However, carcinogenic substances are formed when this molecule is broken down and its usage will be questioned sooner or later. It is therefore necessary to be able to offer less toxic substances as an alternative.

Solutions from the foodstuffs industry

The department Explosive Materials and Ammunition Surveillance (WTE) is involved in this development with a study which will shortly be published in the journal Propellants, Explosives, Pyrotechnics. The authors have turned to the foodstuffs industry to find new stabilisers which meet the following criteria: easily accessible, reasonably priced, and with a similar or better effect than the currently used stabilisers, but less harmful to the environment and with fewer toxic reaction substances.

Violet, turmeric and sunflower oil as potential stabilisers

As part of the study, a series of natural stabilisers could be determined, which are more efficient but less toxic than the molecules currently used. The selected substances include Vitamin E, a very well-known antioxidant which is also used as a dietary supplement, and alpha-ionone, which is extracted from the violet plant and is frequently used in the manufacture of perfume, but also curcumin extracted from turmeric, which has antitumor and antimutagenic effects.

Validation of the new molecules

The next step will be to validate the use of these molecules by examining their decomposition products and their toxicity, their environmental impact and the stabilising mechanisms. Finally, further studies on the long-term stability of the new powders should be performed. The knowledge thus obtained can be used to validate and sell the new composition.

The study in English can be obtained from wt@armasuisse.ch upon request.