Advancing technology associated with explosives, propellants, and pyrotechnics — what the scientific community calls energetic materials — is the goal of a new joint project between Purdue University and the United States Army. Although the modern military makes use of many new technologies such as advanced computing, data analytics, artificial intelligence, robotics, hypersonic aviation and biotechnology, energetic materials are still the key components in many of the Army's munition systems.
Jeffrey Rhoads, director of the Ray W. Herrick Laboratories and professor of mechanical engineering, said that research related to energetic materials is important for the U.S. armed forces to achieve the modernization priorities set out in the 2018 National Defense Strategy, among other documents.
To bring the technology into the 21st century, improved scientific understanding, manufacturing techniques, safety, and sustainability are requisite. All of this needs to be done while also significantly enhancing lethality in accordance with the Army's modernization priorities.
"One of the areas of modernization is what the military calls long-range, precision fires," Rhoads said. "To ensure the long-term safety of the warfighter in the presence of emerging international threats more research in this area is needed."
Purdue's Energetic Research Center (PERC) is entering a three-year cooperative research agreement with the Army to achieve these goals. The research, which is being conducted jointly with scientists from the U.S. Army, is a comprehensive project, spanning from synthesis to manufacturing to demilitarizing ammunitions and munitions, and everything related to energetic materials in between.
"Right now, a lot of things are still being made by hand. They're not being manufactured in a modern way, and there are many safety concerns with that. Much of this could be done using automated processes where the operator is some distance removed," Rhoads said.
Earlier this year PERC and the Army laboratory announced that they had jointly developed two new lead-free materials used to ignite powder inside a gun cartridge.
Stephen Beaudoin, director of PERC and professor of chemical engineering, said PERC has the capability to design an energetic molecule on a computer, synthesize the molecule, determine the characteristics of the molecule, formulate it into a useful compound, and determine a process that will allow it to be manufactured.
"We've built up this capability over time — our motto is 'Molecules to Munitions.'" Beaudoin said. "There is no other university in the world that can do this every step of the way, all the way through. Energetic materials are not easy to work with. They have a tremendous amount of energy stored in just a molecule. The experiments have to be very precise, and you have to be very careful. You have to have people who are highly skilled to do this type of work."