GUNCOTTON, an explosive substance produced by the action of strong nitric acid on cellulose at the ordinary temperature; chemically it is a nitrate of cellulose, or a mixture of nitrates, according to some authorities. The first step in the history of guncotton was made by T. J. Pelouze in 1838, who observed that when paper or cotton was immersed in cold concentrated nitric acid the materials, though not altered in physical appearance, became heavier, and after washing and drying were possessed of self-explosive properties. At the time these products were thought to be related to the nitrated starch obtained a little previously by Henri Braconnot and called xyloidin; they are only related in so far as they are nitrates. C. F. Schonbein of Basel published his discovery of guncotton in 1846 (Phil. Mag. , 3i> P- 7). an< i tn > s was shortly after followed by investigations by R. R. Bottger of Frankfort and Otto and Knop, all of whom added to our knowledge of the subject, the last-named introducing the use of sulphuric along with nitric acid in the nitration-process. The chemical composition and constitution of guncotton has been studied by a considerable number of chemists and many divergent views have been put forward on the subject. W. Crum was probably the first to recognize that some hydrogen atoms of the cellulose had been replaced by an oxide of nitrogen, and this view was supported more or less by other workers, especially Hadow, who appears to have distinctly recognized that at least three compounds were present, the most violently explosive of which constituted the main bulk of the product commonly obtained and known as guncotton. This particular product was insoluble in a mixture of ether and alcohol, and its composition could be expressed by the term tri-nitrocellulose. Other products were soluble in the ether-alcohol mixture: they were less highly nitrated, and constituted the so-called collodion guncotton.
The smallest empirical formula for cellulose (q.v.) may certainly be written CjHioOs. How much of the hydrogen and oxygen are in the hydroxylic (OH) form cannot be absolutely stated, but from the study of the acetates at least three hydroxyl groups may be assumed. The oldest and perhaps most reasonable idea represents guncotton as cellulose trinitrate, but this has been much disputed, and various formulae, some based on cellulose as C^HttOio, others on a still more complex molecule, have been proposed. The constitution of guncotton is a difficult matter to investigate, primarily on account of the very insoluble nature of cellulose itself, and also from the fact that comparatively slight variations in the concentration and temperature of the acids used produce considerable differences in the products. The nitrates are also very insoluble substances, all the so-called solvents merely converting them into jelly. No method has yet been devised by which the molecular weight can be ascertained. 1 The products of the action of nitric acid on cellulose are not nitro compounds in the sense that picric acid is, but are nitrates or nitric esters.
Guncotton is made by immersing cleaned and dried cotton waste in a mixture of strong nitric and sulphuric acids. The 1 The composition of the cellulose nitrates was reviewed by G. Lunge (Jour. Amer. Chem. Soc., 1901, 23, p. 527), who, assuming the formula CjjHwOw for cellulose, showed how the nitrocelluloses described by different chemists may be expressed by the formula )*, where * has the values 4, 5, 6, ... 12.
relative amounts of the acids in the mixture and the time of duration of treatment of the cotton varies somewhat in different works, but the underlying idea is the same, viz. employing such an excess of sulphuric over nitric that the latter will be rendered anhydrous or concentrated and maintained as such in solution in the sulphuric acid, and that the sulphuric acid shall still be sufficiently strong to absorb and combine with the water produced during the actual formation of the guncotton. In the recent methods the cotton remains in contact with the acids for two to four hours at the ordinary air temperature (15 C.), in which time it is almost fully nitrated, the main portion, say 90%, having a composition represented by the formula 2 C 6 H7O2(NOj)3, the remainder consisting of lower nitrated products, some oxidation products and traces of unchanged cellulose and cellulose sulphates. The acid is then slowly run out by an opening in the bottom of the pan in which the operation is conducted, and water distributed carefully over its surface displaces it in the interstices of the cotton, which is finally subjected to a course of boiling and washing with water. This washing is a most important part of the process. On its thoroughness depends the removal of small quantities of products other than the nitrates, for instance, some sulphates and products from impurities contained in the original cellulose. Cellulose sulphates are one, and possibly the main, cause of instability in guncotton, and it is highly desirable that they should be completely hydrolysed and removed in the washing process. The nitrated product retains the outward form of the original cellulose. In the course of the washing, according to a method introduced by Sir F. Abel, the cotton is ground into a pulp, a process which greatly facilitates the complete removal of acids, etc. This pulp is finally drained, and is then either compressed, while still moist, into .slabs or blocks when required for blasting purposes, or it is dried when required for the manufacture of propellants. Sometimes a small quantity of an alkali (e.g. sodium carbonate) is added to the final washing water, so that quantities of this alkaline substance ranging from o- 5 % to a little over i % are retained by the guncotton. The idea is that any traces of acid not washed away by the washing process or produced later by a slow decomposition of the substance will be thereby neutralized and rendered harmless. Guncotton in an air-dry state, whether in the original form or after grinding to pulp and compressing, burns with very great rapidity but does not detonate unless confined.
, Immediately after the discovery of guncotton Schonbein proposed its employment as a substitute for gunpowder, and General von Lenk carried out a lengthy and laborious series of experiments intending to adapt it especially for artillery use. All these and many subsequent attempts to utilize it, either loose or mechanically compressed in any way, signally failed. However much compressed by mechanical means it is still a porous mass, and when it is confined as in a gun the flame and hot gases from the portion first ignited permeate the remainder, generally causing it actually to detonate, or to burn so rapidly that its action approaches detonation. The more closely it is confined the greater is the pressure set up by a small part of the charge burning, and the more completely will the explosion of the remainder assume the detonating form. The employment of guncotton as a propellant was possible only after the discovery that it could be gelatinized or made into a colloid by the action of so-called solvents, e.g. ethylacetate and other esters, acetone and a number of like substances (see CORDITE).
When quite dry guncotton is easily detonated by a blow on an anvil or hard surface. If dry and warm it is much more sensitive to percussion or friction, and also becomes electrified by friction under those conditions. The amount of contained moisture exerts a considerable effect on its sensitiveness. With about 2 % of moisture it can still be detonated on an anvil, but the action is generally confined to the piece struck. As the quantity of contained water increases it becomes difficult or even impossible to detonate by an ordinary blow. Compressed dry guncotton is easily detonated by an initiative detonator such as mercuric fulminate. Guncotton containing more than 15% of water is uninflammable, may be compressed or worked without danger and is much more difficult to detonate by a fulminate 2 This formula is retained mainly on account of its simplicity. It also expresses all that is necessary in this connexion.
detonator than when dry. 1 A small charge of dry guncotton will, however, detonate the wet material, and this peculiarity is made use of in the employment of guncotton for blasting purposes. A charge of compressed wet guncotton may be exploded, even under water, by the detonation of a small primer of the dry and waterproofed material, which in turn can be started by a small fulminate detonator. The explosive wave from the dry guncotton primer is in fact better responded to by the wet compressed material than the dry, and its detonation is somewhat sharper than that of the dry. It is not necessary for the blocks of wet guncotton to be actually m contact if they be under water, and the peculiar explosive wave can also be conveyed a little distance by a piece of metal such as a railway rail. The more nearly the composition of guncotton approaches that represented by CsHyOzCNOaJs, the more_stable is it as regards storing at ordinary temperatures, and the higher the igniting temperature. Carefully prepared guncotton after washing with Alcohol-ether until nothing more dissolves may require to be heated to 180-185 C. before inflaming. Ordinary commercial guncottons, containing from 10 to 15% of lower nitrated products, will ignite as a rule some 20-25 lower.
Assuming the above formula to represent guncotton, there is sufficient oxygen for internal combustion without any carbon being left. The gaseous mixture obtained by burning guncotton in a vacuum vessel contains steam, carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, nitrogen, nitric oxide, and methane. When slowly heated in a vacuum vessel until ignition takes place, some nitrogen dioxide, NOs, is also produced. When kept for some weeks at a temperature of 100 in steam, a considerable number of fatty acids, some bases, and glucose-like substances result. Under different pressures the relative amounts of the combustion products vary considerably. Under very great pressures carbon monoxide, steam and nitrogen are the main products, but nitric oxide never quite disappears.
Dilute mineral acids have little or no action on guncotton. Strong sulphuric acid in contact with it liberates first nitric acid and later oxides of nitrogen, leaving a charred residue or a brown solution according to the quantity of acid. It sometimes fires on contact with strong sulphuric acid, especially when slightly warmed. The alkali hydroxides (e.g. sodium hydroxide) will in a solid state fire it on contact. Strong or weak solutions of these substances also decompose it, producing some alkali nitrate and nitrite, the cellulose molecule being only partially restored, some quantity undergoing oxidation. Ammonia is also active, but not quite in the same manner as the alkali hydroxides. Dry guncotton heated in ammonia gas detonates at about 70, and ammonium hydroxide solutions of all strengths slowly decompose it, yielding somewhat complex products. Alkali sulphohydrates reduce guncotton, or other nitrated celluloses, completely to cellulose. The production of the so-called " artificial silk depends on this action.
A characteristic difference between guncotton and collodion cotton is the insolubility of the former in ether or alcohol or a mixture of these liquids. The so-called collodion cottons are nitrated celluloses, but of a lower degree of nitration (as a rule) than guncotton. They are sometimes spoken of as " lower " or " soluble " cottons or nitrates. The solubility in ether-alcohol may be owing to a lower degree of nitration, or to the temperature conditions under which the process of manufacture has been carried on. If guncotton be correctly represented by the formula CeH 7 O 2 (NOa)8, it should contain a little more than 14% of nitrogen. Guncottons are examined for degree of nitration by the nitrometer, in which apparatus they are decomposed by sulphuric acid in contact with mercury, and all the nitrogen is evolved as nitric oxide, NO, which is measured and the weight of its contained nitrogen calculated. Ordinary guncottons seldom contain more than 13% of nitrogen, and in most cases the amount does not exceed 12-5 %. Generally speaking, the lower the nitrogen content of a guncotton, as found by the nitrometer, the higher the percentage of matters soluble in a mixture of ether-alcohol. These soluble matters are usually considered as " lower " nitrates.
Guncottons are usually tested by the Abel heat test for stability (see CORDITE). Another heat test, that of Will, consists in heating a weighed quantity of the guncotton in a stream of carbon dioxide to 130 C., passing the evolved gases over some red-hot copper, and finally collecting them over a solution of potassium hydroxide which retains the carbon dioxide and allows the nitrogen, arising from the guncotton decomposition, to be measured. This is done at definite time intervals so that the rate of decomposition can be followed. The relative stability is then judged by the amount of nitrogen gas collected in a certain time. Several modifications of this and of the Abel heat test are also in use. (See Ex PLOSIVES.) (W. R. E. H.)
Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)