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Home > Propellants, Firearms, and Ammunition Development > Evolution of Propellants > Modern Propellants > Nitrocellulose

In 1845-46, a substance was invented that showed promise. Nitrocellulose was the result of treating common cotton fibers (containing cellulose) with nitric acid. This reaction adds nitrogen and oxygen to cellulose molecules. The nitration process is performed in the presence of sulfuric acid to scavenge extra water generated by the reaction and allows the attachment of the maximum number of nitrate radicals to permit better combustion.

When burned, the added oxygen in the nitrate radicals allows full involvement of the fuels in cotton, releasing significantly more energy than untreated cellulose. This produces a large volume of gas and leaves minimal visible solid by-products. In contrast, black powder would produce smoke and fouling.

Although this development gave chemists the self-contained oxidizer and minimal residue, guncotton could not be predictably controlled in its native state. Its combustion could prove too violent for iron gun systems of that period; numerous accidents were attributed to the attempts to manufacture it for propellant use.

Captain Schultze of the Prussian Artillery attempted to use treated wood cellulose rather than cotton to control combustion. His efforts showed some progress for small-arms propellants, but not enough to reduce the burning rate to the degree required for cannons.

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