CRANE — Crane Army prides itself on limiting its impact on the environment. The organization considers the stewardship of the land entrusted to it a great responsibility.
To better protect the air Hoosiers breathe, the water Indiana families drink and the soil children play on, CAAA utilizes closed systems demilitarization, or the environmentally-friendly destruction of out-of-use munitions, whenever possible.
Crane Army’s major closed demil operations involve white phosphorus, red phosphorus and Yellow D munitions.
White phosphorus is a dangerous chemical used in explosive rounds dating back to World War I but is banned in most situations today due to major human health and environmental risks associated with its use.
Sam Wright, an environmental scientist at CAAA, described how white phosphorus burns upon contact with air.
“As long as there’s oxygen present, white phosphorus will ignite,” Wright said. “It can literally ignite in your hand. White phosphorus is toxic and highly flammable. It will burn anything it touches and causes both chemical burns and regular burns to people exposed to it.”
Due to the chemical’s dangerous nature, it cannot be destroyed with traditional demilitarization methods.
“White phosphorus can’t be open detonated or open burned because you can’t guarantee all of it will be destroyed,” Wright said. “Some might get dispersed through the air and people could breathe that in. It could also contaminate soil and water. White phosphorus will also burn any living thing.”
Without a safe and complete method of disposal, white phosphorus munitions piled up in CAAA storage, utilizing space that could otherwise hold usable munitions for warfighters.
Innovative Crane Army personnel found that safe and complete method of disposal. CAAA Mechanical Engineer Sonny Dant explained the process.
“Projectiles filled with white phosphorus are loaded onto a press which punches a hole in each metal body,” Dant said. “Once the white phosphorus contacts oxygen, it starts burning. Then, the projectile is pushed off into a retort, a large cylindrical item with a diameter of 5-6 feet and 30 feet in length.”
White phosphorus does not burn all at once. The projectile travels through the retort via a conveyor belt to accelerate the process.
“The retort is heated to about 1000 degrees to help the white phosphorus burn faster,” Dant said. “By the time the projectile gets to the other end the white phosphorus is gone. Exhaust fans capture the phosphorus fumes so nothing is released to the environment.”
The now-empty projectiles are collected and recycled and the phosphorus fumes are converted into acid.
“The fumes are sprayed with water and form phosphoric acid almost instantaneously,” Dant said. “The water stream is recirculated over and over until it’s 75 percent phosphoric acid. Projectile bodies fall out onto a conveyor and are sent to a recycling center.”
The entire system is self-contained to ensure no harmful material escapes.
“There is a steam exhaust, but what little is out there is closely monitored,” Dant said.
“Everything else is phosphoric acid or metal and can be sold.”
The phosphoric acid is sold for use in agriculture. The entire operation not only generates revenue for Crane Army but replaces lethal chemicals with useful material.
“We take a munition, something that was originally intended to harm, destroy and kill people and turn it into recyclable, reusable material,” Dant said. “And we do it without letting anything toxic escape.”
CAAA’s closed white phosphorus demilitarization process is a point of pride for an organization that strives to protect natural resources from harmful chemicals like white phosphorus.