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Specialty Chemicals

US Defense Department funds chemical capacity building

$192.5 million will help replace critical raw materials currently sourced abroad

by Craig Bettenhausen
February 19, 2024

A howitzer being fired by a team of five soldiers.
Credit: US Army photo by Capt. Ed Shan
The US military is working to restore domestic production of the raw materials for artillery, like this howitzer and other defense applications.

The US has tense relationships with the countries that supply many of the chemical raw materials needed by its military. The US Department of Defense (DOD) is now deploying $192.5 million to address this weakness in its supply chain.

The money will go to seven US companies and “will result in the domestic production of military grade chemicals by establishing, expanding, and modernizing the manufacturing capacity of 22 critical chemicals used in defense systems, including nonenergetic chemicals and precursors for both energetic and nonenergetic chemicals,” Laura Taylor-Kale, assistant secretary of defense for industrial base policy, says in a press release announcing the funding.

“Energetic materials” is an industry term that primarily refers to explosives but can also include propellants and fuels.

A structure of 4-nitroanisole.

The specialty chemical maker Lacamas Laboratories received the largest award, $86.2 million, to set up production of 4-nitroanisole, 1,3,5-trichlorobenzene, diphenylamine, ethyl centralite, and methyl centralite—chemicals used to make munitions. Lacamas, a Portland, Oregon–based firm that otherwise produces mostly pharmaceutical raw ingredients, will also add capacity for salicylic acid and sebacic acid, which the DOD describes as “precursors of nonenergetics.”

Jim Tung, a chemist who works in both process development and marketing at Lacamas, says the firm will use the funds to build a plant, hire staff, and produce the first test batches for evaluation by customers. Diphenylamine, ethyl centralite, and methyl centralite stabilize explosive blends and moderate burn rates. Tung says the 4-nitroanisole Lacamas will make is a precursor for 2,4-dinitroanisole, an explosive that the US military is increasingly using as it phases out trinitrotoluene (TNT) for safety reasons.

Tung, who is also a member of C&EN’s advisory board, says TNT can detonate from strong kinetic shocks, whereas 2,4-dinitroanisole allows for weapons that explode only when intended. 1,3,5-trichlorobenzene is a precursor for other energetic materials.

Another item on the DOD’s domestic supply wish list is elemental magnesium, which is valued for its light weight, high mechanical strength, and good electrical conductivity. Flares and fuses also often contain magnesium.

The DOD awarded the start-up Magrathea Metals $19.6 million to set up its first commercial magnesium smelter; Magrathea, which has a pilot plant in Oakland, California, will also contribute about $8 million for the project. CEO Alex Grant says the firm’s technology can use desalination brines, other industrial wastewater, and raw seawater as a feedstock.

US Magnesium is the only current US supplier of magnesium, which it makes from water pulled out of Utah’s Great Salt Lake. That factory, however, is imperiled because the water level in the lake is dropping and the Utah Department of Environmental Quality has denied the company’s request to extend its intake canals. In the 2022 request, US Magnesium describes the situation as an emergency, writing that the water levels are so low that the current intake channels cannot supply enough water to sustain operations at the plant.

The state’s public comment period drew almost 800 responses, which overwhelmingly urged the state to deny permits for the intake extensions. In documents explaining its decision, the environmental department says the company had failed to prove that the project would maintain water quality in the lake for other users.

In addition to Lacamas and Magrathea, the DOD awarded five other companies funds to build domestic production lines for chemicals and materials. The specialty ceramics maker CoorsTek received $49.6 million for armor and ammunition packaging materials. The rocket cartridge maker Estes Energetics got $13.0 million for the inorganic oxidizers barium nitrate, potassium chlorate, potassium nitrate, potassium perchlorate, strontium nitrate, strontium oxalate, and strontium peroxide, as well as for the muzzle suppressor material potassium sulfate.

A structure of 1-methylamino anthraquinone.

The chemical maker METSS got $14.0 million for the same chemicals, plus the oxidizer lead nitrate. The metal powder specialist Powdermet was awarded $1.9 million for titanium and zirconium powder production. And the specialty chemical maker Synthio received $8.2 million for the same stabilizers Lacamas will make as well as the smoke dyes 1-methylamino anthraquinone and 1,3-diamino-2,4-dihydroanthraquinone.

The domestic supply chain for chemicals the US military sees as essential has eroded over the past few decades because of low labor costs and weak environmental regulations abroad, says Marta Pazos, a contractor who works for the DOD on the critical chemical supply chain. “You can find anything you want here in the US,” she says. “But a lot of companies that sell it are distributors of manufacturing from China.”

Authority for the DOD’s manufacturing initiative comes from the Defense Production Act. Though the law entered the public consciousness recently through presidential orders directing factories to make ventilators and N95 masks, Pazos says, its original focus was on proactive capacity building. “It was enacted in 1950 under President Truman’s second term, and it was meant to organize the country to go to war in Korea,” she says. Magnesium was one of the original target materials.

“We love our free markets until they work against us,” Pazos says. “We’re waking up to the fact that we depend on our adversaries to defend ourselves, including against those adversaries.”

Starting in the fall of 2028, Pazos says, DOD will bar defense contractors from sourcing many of their raw materials from China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea. That mandate will generate sales for the funding recipients, she says, but participating companies should develop business plans around the new assets that don’t rely solely on orders from the military.

The government and its defense contractors may at times claim priority on capacity at plants the DOD paid for, Pazos says, but participating companies are otherwise free to sell the materials to other customers. Nitroanisoles, for example, are also used in food and textile dyes, and anthraquinones are the basis of many colorful smoke pyrotechnics. “The chemicals used in defense are as mundane as they get,” she says, but the government wants a secure, domestic supply network.

Part of Pazos’s role for the DOD is to recruit chemical makers to participate in future funding rounds. “We’re now rolling out many different programs to lower the barriers of entry for companies that are not traditionally used to doing business with the government to make it less scary,” she says.


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