CRANE, Ind. -- One of Crane Army Ammunition Activity's core missions is to demilitarize excess, obsolete or unserviceable conventional ammunition and explosives to ensure only the most advanced materiel is kept ready for use in the military's stockpile.

Crane Army's white phosphorus-to-phosphoric acid conversion plant is a keystone of that demilitarization process. The only white phosphorus conversion plant in the United States, the facility is a unique recycling system that derives phosphoric acid from a wide variety of white phosphorus munitions that can then be sold on the open market.

"The significant thing about this plant is that it converts the lethality of munitions into renewable resources to include steel recycling as well as phosphoric acid for agricultural fertilizer," Paul Allswede, Crane Army's demilitarization program manager, said. "This process generates revenue to offset production costs saving the taxpayer dollars."

In 2012, prior to sequestration, the plant generated 2,528,200 pounds of acid from several types of military projectiles, mortars and canisters, producing $455,076 in sales for reinvestment into equipment maintenance and environmental efficiency projects. Scrap metal sales from these munitions generated an additional $148,292.

But the conversion process produces more than just good business. "We are able to process the metals from the operations and recycle 100 percent of the materials into new production steel," Larry Parsons, president of Bedford Recycling Inc., a local business that has been a partner with Crane Army for over twenty years, said.

The phosphoric acid is utilized as a liquid fertilizer for a wide variety of crops from garden flowers to commercial peanuts. "It is a good feeling that we can take this outdated material and turn it into something good for the local people, their farms and their fields," Scott Mollet, the conversion plant supervisor, said.

Fully operational since 1989, the facility has a maximum capability of processing up to 11,500 pounds of white phosphorus in a day, producing 48,000 pounds of phosphoric acid with a 75 percent concentration. The plant operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week in cyclical production runs averaging three to seven months long.

The conversion process involves punching a hole in the munition (which has previously been stripped of all explosive components) and inserting it into a modified rotary kiln furnace via a gravity feed system. Completely self-contained, the system uses two 75 horsepower blowers to maintain a negative pressure on the materiel, drawing the heated vapors through a flow/counter flow hydration system to produce the phosphoric acid concentration. The remaining gas stream then moves through a separator, producing a dilute acid, before 99.9 percent of all aerosol particles are removed within the stream prior to its exit from the stack. The end product is then filtered to remove any suspended solids and stored in a recently renovated 16,300 gallon acid distribution tank where it is transferred to tanker trucks that are carefully weighed at the facility.

Operational efficiencies in excess of 90 percent are maintained through a centralized monitoring and recording process. "Efficiency is the name of the game," Allswede said. "We are competing in a world market."

The state-of-the-art technology helps plant operators meet and exceed the highest environmental quality standards developed for military ammunition disposal. Recent improvements include a hazardous waste containment area and a high-efficiency natural gas burner for energy savings.

The plant's unique design and ability to meet environmental standards in a profitable way has made it a flagship in the search for new demilitarization processes. The Crane Army demilitarization team continues to look for ways to expand and improve the plant's capabilities for the safe disposal of other ammunition items that cannot be burned openly, such as grenades containing red phosphorus, which will continue to benefit taxpayers, farmers and small businesses well into the future.

Established October 1977, Crane Army Ammunition Activity maintains ordnance professionals and infrastructure in order to receive, store, ship, produce, renovate and demilitarize conventional ammunition, missiles and related components. Crane Army maintains up to one third of the DoD's conventional ammunition inventory. The Activity also provides command oversight of Iowa Army Ammunition Plant, Letterkenny Munitions Center, Pennsylvania, and Milan Army Ammunition Plant, Tennessee.