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Crane Demilitarization Plant Turns Smoke Bombs Into Fertilizer

The smoke bombs are burned to release the acid inside.

Photo: James Vavrek

The smoke bombs are burned to release the acid inside.

At Crane, the Army is always looks for new ways to demilitarize old weapons the military can no longer use. A new process takes smoke bombs and transforms them into fertilizer you can use on your plants.

Demilitarization is often associated with open detonation, exploding or burning old weapons to dispose of them. But Crane’s White phosphorus plant provides an opportunity to re-purpose old weapons.

Once a weapon becomes obsolete because of new technology or machinery, it gets shipped to military bases across the U.S. for storage and eventual demilitarization.

And Crane’s White Phosphorous plant has been running since the early 90s, six months a year, 24/7 in three daily shifts.

“That [White Phosphorus] plant is unique to Crane, unique to the department of defense and it is the only facility that will convert white phosphorus over to phosphoric acid,” says Paul Allswede, Demilitarization Commodity Manager at the Crane Army Base.

This process starts with rounds and canisters of white phosphorus, used as smoke bombs by the military.

The smoke bombs are burned to release the acid inside.

Photo: Tyler Lake

The smoke bombs are burned to release the acid inside.

A Crane worker loads a canister onto a conveyor belt.

Photo: James Vavrek

A Crane worker loads a canister onto a conveyor belt.

A 32-pound round has 12 pounds of white phosphorus. The metal rounds are placed into a machine; over the course of about 45 minutes, the round is punctured and the white phosphorous is converted into phosphoric acid.

Some of them are almost 70 years old.

“The age of these rounds will vary,” Allswede says. “The last round of 5 inch 38 Navy projectiles were actually manufactured in 1948.”

Shift workers place the white phosphorus canister into a machine which punctures it, exposing it to oxygen. The white phosphorus catches fire, and the cannister is pushed through a long cylinder which is heated to about 1,100 degrees Fahrenheit. As the canisters are pushed through, the phosphorus is pulled up into another chamber that mixes it with water, creating phosphoric acid.

The empty canisters are taken to Bedford recycling.

The end product, the phosphoric acid that goes on to be fertilizer, is an important part of agriculture in Indiana.

“It’s needed for the plant to grow and complete its life cycle, so that’s why it’s called an essential nutrient,” says James Camberato, Professor of Agronomy at Purdue University. “And most soils have some phosphorous in them, but eventually it runs out because the plant takes it up.”

Hoosier farmers spend about a quarter of a billion dollars every year on phosphorus fertilizer to maintain soil health. Camberato compares the amount of nutrients leaving a field every year to a sack of flour.

“So if you think about a sack, a large sack of flour that would be leaving the field every year, just to maintain the soils, you would have to put that back,” he says. “When you think of 11 million acres of corn and soybeans, a tremendous amount of nutrients that are removed from fields that need to be returned.”

The demilitarization process results in an acid that is used by farmers as fertilizer.

Photo: James Vavrek

The demilitarization process results in an acid that is used by farmers as fertilizer.

Now, specialists at Crane are looking into adding the needed equipment to demilitarize red phosphorus at the plant. It’s only two molecules different from white phosphorus, but it requires slightly different processes for demilitarization.

“My understanding is they were looking at capability gaps, RP came to the top of the list, we have no capability for the RP,” Allswede says. “Then the questions started to be asked is it close enough to RP? Will it perform the same? And that’s when we started into the demonstration evaluations and the assessment of can we process it through the WP plant?”

Allswede hopes the red phosphorous demilitarization process will get approved in the next year. That could boost production of the plant from six months a year to year-round, and help with the almost 6,000 tons of WP and RP munitions still awaiting demilitarization.

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