Radford Army Ammunition Plant is a government-owned, contractor-operated propellant plant, producing large quantities of propellants to support the Army and the Department of Defense. Since 2012, the Army has worked on several modernization projects at the installation, improving daily operations through technology advancements and infrastructure improvements. RFAAP’s newest facilities significantly improve upon its legacy production systems.
The installation began production in August 1941 as two separate facilities: Radford Ordnance Works and the Dublin Bagging Plant (New River). Radford Ordnance Works was one of the first single-base smokeless-powder plants authorized under the Natural Defense Program, while the Dublin Bagging Plant was a bag manufacturing and loading plant for smokeless and black powders. Following World War II, these units combined under a single command.
Nitrocellulose is one of the key components of propellants manufactured at Radford. It is the building block in all RFAAP products. The formation of NC involves a series of controlled chemical reactions, combining acid and cellulose (pulp or cotton). The RFAAP Legacy NC Area contains facilities for nitration, purification, refining, stabilization, post-stabilization (poaching) and blending in nine separate buildings.
The process begins in two areas simultaneously by prepping the cellulose using a cutting house and prepping the acids using a weigh house. Monitoring and measuring quality consistently ensures the nitrocellulose meets customer needs and expectations. Blown cut pulp starts at the top of the NC Nitrator and transitions through various stages of nitration.
Once nitrated, the unstable NC is piped to the boiling tub for purification. There, water-covered NC is boiled for as long as 80 hours, then rinsed, creating a more stable product. Once the NC meets quality standards, it is pumped through a set of rotating blades. This process refines the NC for further processing. The resulting better fiber quality allows for easier manipulation of the NC to create a wider variety of products.
RFAAP’s modern NC facility contains the same processes as the Legacy NC Area, but in a closed system, while using two buildings rather than nine. These updates increase throughput while reducing both energy waste and physical labor requirements.
Modernization has also changed the cellulose cutting house preparation. The new transport system and cutters create a better product for nitration through uniformity of the cellulose or chip. Chip uniformity reduces waste by producing a cleaner cut without fragments while increasing potential nitration.
Poachers are among the modernized sealed vessels in the new facility. Unlike the boiling tubs in the Legacy NC Area, Poachers have motors with stirring blades to produce a more homogeneous mix.
Before the new facility is operational, there will be a six-month commissioning process where the propellants produced by the modernized facility qualify against nitrocellulose standards. When fully operational, the new NC facility will help change RFAAP from a World War II-era plant to a 21st century installation.