Picatinny Arsenal

Picatinny engineers are using algae to develop a safe, cheap, fast and environmentally-friendly way to recycle aging M6 artillery round propellant.

The Picatinny Arsenal is an American military research and manufacturing facility located on 6,400 acres of land in New Jersey. It is the headquarters of the United States Army Armament Research, Development and Engineering Center, and the Army’s center of expertise for small arms cartridge ammunition.

The Arsenal recently announced that Picatinny engineers have partnered with private industry to harness algae’s photosynthesis ability to develop a safe, cheap, fast and environmentally-friendly way to recycle aging M6 artillery round propellant.

Propellant is the chemical substance in the artillery round that ignites and propels the round out of the howitzer tube. Currently, M6 propellant in the M119 artillery rounds is disposed, or demilitarized, primarily through incineration or open burning, which generates carbon dioxide.

“Because the algae-based process uses photosynthesis, it actually consumes carbon dioxide,” said Pamela Sheehan, project officer and principle investigator for the M6 recycling research program at the Armament Research, Development and Engineering Center, or ARDEC, at Picatinny Arsenal. “So not only is the process not carbon-dioxide generating, it goes beyond being carbon neutral to a carbon-dioxide consumer.”

When circumstances allow it, the military recycles metal parts during the demilitarization processes. However, the algae-based demilitarization method would allow the Army to recycle nitrogen, which is present in all propellants and explosives.

“We’ve conceptualized a process to develop a capability to extract and conserve that nitrogen using a hydrolysis process,” Ms. Sheehan said. Hydrolysis is a chemical process of decomposition.

“The nitrogen then is in the form of nitrite and nitrate, and we want to use that nitrogen to grow algae in a reactor. The algae utilizing the nitrogen will grow, and as they grow will produce ethanol, and an oil product that can later be refined into diesel fuel,” she said.

The Picatinny team is working with the industrial biotechnology company Algenol Biotech LLC, which has a patented algae technology platform for the production of ethanol and other biofuels.

ARDEC engineers are developing the hydrolysis process to extract the nitrogen at Picatinny. The nitrogen would then be shipped to Algenol in Florida for the algae growth process.

“The algae-based process is a broad program, and we’re looking at it as a platform technology,” Ms. Sheehan said. “All of our energetics have nitrogen in them. So conceptually this process can apply to everything we have in the stock pile — currently and in the future.”

Ms. Sheehan’s team has proven the concept can work successfully in small batches. The engineers are now scaling up and testing the process at a larger volume with reactors that run continuously.