Cotton Fluffing Improves National Security

Army, May 1, 2014 | Go to article overview

Cotton Fluffing Improves National Security


An Army research project about fluffing cotton is leading to renewed independence from foreign countries for a key component of artillery and mortar munitions.

The discovery is a major victory in the move to prevent potential disruption of vital military supplies-in this case, ammunition. This is similar to efforts to reduce the United States' dependence on foreign supplies of rare earth met- als, sophisticated magnets and other materials of which America has small or nonexistent domestic sources.

The cotton project came about because of changes in do- mestic cotton production. Raw loose cotton fiber has largely been replaced by a pressed, sheeted material not suitable to become nitro- cellulose, the highly flammable and combustible ingredient in cartridge cases for artillery and mortar shells.

The project is responsible for all tube-launched, indirect fire muni- tions and mortar weapons, includ- ing precision-guided and smart weapons, fuse and fuse setters, and mortar fire control systems, in ad- dition to conventional munitions.

"The global cotton industry has been trending toward sheeted cot- ton since around 1999," said Kristy Klein, combat ammunition systems project officer. Transporting sheeted cotton costs "signifi- cantly less than baled cotton," leading to more demand for the higher-density sheets than the lower-density bales.

The last domestic supplier of baled cotton shut down in 2001, Klein said, while "the last known available foreign source abandoned the baled cotton market in 2010." Some supplies were found. "Working with industry, sufficient quantities of baled cotton linters were purchased to maintain domestic nitrocellulose production for combustible cartridge cases at our Radford [Va.] facilities through May 2012."

Attempts to use the pressed cotton stock had bad results, according to a statement released by Klein. Using the cotton stock required cutting or shredding the material, which produced clumps of cotton fiber instead of an even consis- tency. The result, she said, was uneven explosive power. Muzzle velocity variation could be as much as four times greater when clumps were present, and burning debris was sometimes left in the chamber, presenting a safety hazard.

To resolve the issue, the Army looked at possible changes in the manufacturing process, turning to a DoD program for help. The foreign comparative testing (FCT) program, part of the Office of the Sec- retary of Defense's Comparative Technology Office, al- lowed the Army to look at how nitrocellulose was pro- duced in other nations.

The comparative testing program, managed in this case by U.S. Army Research, Development and Engineering Command, was created in 1980 with a goal of finding ways to more quickly field equipment by looking at preexisting research and development. Part of the idea is to allow the purchase of foreign equipment when it is immediately available and responds to a pressing need. The program also is aimed at improving the U.S. industrial base, which is what happened in this case.

A solution to the cotton problem was found by evaluat- ing technology in use in France and the Czech Republic: a machine that fluffs the pressed cardboard-like cotton stock without damaging fibers. …

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