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Military Reloads with Nanotech

Smaller. Cheaper. Nastier. Those are the guiding principles behind the military’s latest bombs. The secret ingredient: nanotechnology that makes for a bigger boom.
January 21, 2005

Nanotechnology is grabbing headlines for its potential in advancing the life sciences and computing research, but the Department of Defense (DoD) found another use: a new class of weaponry that uses energy-packed nanometals to create powerful, compact bombs.

With funding from the U.S. government, Sandia National Laboratories, the Los Alamos National Laboratory, and the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory are researching how to manipulate the flow of energy within and between molecules, a field known as nanoenergentics, which enables building more lethal weapons such as “cave-buster bombs” that have several times the detonation force of conventional bombs such as the “daisy cutter” or MOAB (mother of all bombs).

Researchers can greatly increase the power of weapons by adding materials known as superthermites that combine nanometals such as nanoaluminum with metal oxides such as iron oxide, according to Steven Son, a project leader in the Explosives Science and Technology group at Los Alamos.

“The advantage (of using nanometals) is in how fast you can get their energy out,” Son says.

Son says that the chemical reactions of superthermites are faster and therefore release greater amounts of energy more rapidly.

“Superthermites can increase the (chemical) reaction time by a thousand times,” Son says, resulting in a very rapid reactive wave.

Son, who has been working on nanoenergetics for more than three years, says that scientists can engineer nanoaluminum powders with different particle sizes to vary the energy release rates. This enables the material to be used in many applications, including underwater explosive devices, primers for igniting firearms, and as fuel propellants for rockets.

However, researchers aren’t permitted to discuss what practical military applications may come from this research.

Nanoaluminum is more chemically reactive because there are more atoms on the surface area than standard aluminum, according to Douglas Carpenter, the chief scientific officer at nanometals company Quantumsphere.

“Standard aluminum covers just one-tenth of one percent of the surface area (with atoms), versus fifty percent for nanoaluminum,” Carpenter says.

Carpenter says the U.S. military has developed “cave-buster” bombs using nanoaluminum, and it is also working on missiles and torpedoes that move so quickly that they strike their targets before evasive actions can be taken.

“Nanoaluminum provides ultra high burn rates for propellants that are ten times higher than existing propellants,” says Carpenter.

The military is also trying to make sure that its bullets kill quickly.

The U.S. Army Environmental Center began a program in 1997 to develop alternatives to the toxic lead that is used in the hundreds of millions of rounds that are annually fired during conflicts and at its training ranges.  Carpenter says that although bullets using nanoaluminum are ready to be field tested, the government has been slow implement the technology.

“Getting the government to change the way they kill people is difficult,” Carpenter says.

Because nanometal provides a higher concentration of energy while requiring fewer raw materials, the overall cost of these weapons would drop, according to Kevin Walter, vice president of technical business development at nanometals manufacturer Nanoscale Technologies.

“You get a little better bang for your buck,” Walter says.

The nanometals can be produced in particles as small as eight nanometers, Walter says, and then combined with other chemicals to create the explosive materials, which can also be used for non-military applications including pyrotechnics and explosives for mining.

Nanotechnology “could completely change the face of weaponry,” according to Andy Oppenheimer, a weapons expert with analyst firm and publisher Jane’s Information Group. Oppenheimer says nations including the United States, Germany, and Russia are developing “mini-nuke” devices that use nanotechnology to create much smaller nuclear detonators.

Oppenheimer says the devices could fit inside a briefcase and would be powerful enough to destroy a building. Although the devices require nuclear materials, because of their small size “they blur the line with conventional weapons,” Oppenheimer says.

The mini-nuke weapons are still in the research phase and may be surreptitiously funded since any form of nuclear proliferation is “politically contentious” because of the possibility that they could fall into the hands of terrorists, Oppenheimer says.

The creation of much smaller nuclear bombs adds new challenges to the effort to limit weapons of mass destruction, according to Oppenheimer.

“(The bombs) could blow open everything that is in place for arms control,” Oppenheimer says. “Everything gets more dangerous.”

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