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Alfred Nobel as an Explosives Inventor Essay

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Updated: Dec 3rd, 2020

Born on October 21, 1833, to an engineer father, Immanuel Nobel, Alfred Nobel is one of the innovators who revolutionized the military and other industries specifically by inventing explosives. His father was a pioneer in the manufacture of arms, and he wanted his son to follow his example by studying engineering. However, Alfred was interested in poetry to the chagrin of his father. Alfred was thus sent to study abroad with the hope that he would widen his interests into chemical engineering.

While in France, Alfred met Ascanio Sobrero, an ambitious young Italian, who had invented nitroglycerin (Fant, 2006). At the time, the nitroglycerin produced had no practical use because it was highly explosive. Alfred created interest in nitroglycerin specifically on how to make it useful for construction. He also had to think of a way to solve safety problems associated with the detonation of nitroglycerin. This point marked the start of Alfred’s invention journey, and he would later come up with other military and industrial explosives before the ultimate Nobel Peace Prize. This paper discusses Alfred Nobel’s work with explosives for military and industrial use leading to his contribution to the world of the Nobel Peace Prize.

Nitroglycerin

As mentioned earlier, Nobel did not invent nitroglycerin. He came up with a way of making it useful in the manufacture of explosives. According to Davis (1941), Ascanio Sobrero was the first person to prepare nitroglycerin somewhere between late 1846 and early 1847. He discovered that mixing glycerol with concentrated sulfurous and nitrous acids would create nitroglycerine. The nitroglycerin so produced was highly reactive and explosive, and it burned Sobrero’s face badly during one of his many experiments. Therefore, Sobrero considered this mixture dangerous and unfit for any use but Nobel thought that this problem could be solved.

After he returned to Sweden in 1863, he focused on ways to develop nitroglycerin as an explosive (Feldman, 2012). He started experimenting with different methods, but most of them were disastrous. For instance, in 1864, an explosion occurred during one of his many experiments killing several people including his brother, Emil (Fant, 2006). Nobel did not give up, and his persistence yielded results in the same year.

Nobel started experimenting with different additives to determine the one that would counter the highly explosive nature of nitroglycerin. Nobel discovered that using silica, as an additive would serve this purpose. Mixing silica with nitroglycerin liquid turned it into a paste. This invention was a turning point in the use of nitroglycerin. The paste could be molded into different shapes and sizes to fit into rods to be inserted into drilling holes (Davis, 1941).

The paste was named dynamite. Until this time, no liquid had been used as an explosive, and thus Nobel patented this new discovery. However, Nobel faced another problem on how to detonate the nitroglycerin once inserted into the drilling holes. In response to this challenge, he invented the blasting cap, which would act as a detonator by being ignited using a lighting fuse.

To come up with this detonator, Nobel capitalized on the explosive nature of nitroglycerine especially in the presence of heat. Therefore, he placed black powder in a small glass vessel and placed it within the paste rods to initiate an explosion. He also discovered other ways to detonate nitroglycerin. For instance, he would use the “local heat of an electric spark or of a wire electrically heated under the surface of the nitroglycerin” (Davis, 1941, p. 211).

The percussion cap also became useful in this process. Nobel used black powder first in “glass bulbs, later in hollow wooden cylinders closed with cork stoppers, then a mixture of black powder and mercury fulminate, and later fulminate in small lead capsules and finally in the copper detonators which are still in general use” (Davis, 1941, p. 211). However, the blasting cap needed further modifications, which led to the discovery of the initiation phenomenon.

After making the production and use of nitroglycerin safe, Nobel started commercial manufacturing of the explosive with the help of his father. The first large scale practical application of nitroglycerin was in the State Railway for tunneling purposes. Nobel established the first glycerin production company at Winterwik near Stockholm before expanding to other regions such as German, the United States, and other locations in Europe. In the US, nitroglycerin was applied widely in the blasting of the Hoosac tunnel in Massachusetts (Davis, 1941). The use of nitroglycerine as an explosive spread quickly because it was cheaper compared to other alternatives at the time. For instance, it was commonly used to blast oil wells and other industrial applications.

The Blasting Cap Detonator

The blasting cap detonator was born out of the necessity to have a device that could be used to explode nitroglycerin safely. While other detonators were available, they could not be used to detonate nitroglycerine because they used fuses. However, Nobel discovered that gunpowder could be used to detonate nitroglycerin (Worek, 2010). As such, Nobel had to come up with a way of detonating the gunpowder, which in turn would detonate nitroglycerin.

He discovered the initiation phenomenon whereby a normal detonator was used to initiate explosion to the gunpowder and start a series of reactions to detonate the nitroglycerine ultimately. A blasting cap is normally a small amount of explosive that is detonated to create a pressure wave throughout the entire explosive charge, thus initiating the detonation of all other explosives in the system. According to Davis (1941), Nobel’s blasting cap was a

Cylindrical capsule, generally of copper but sometimes of aluminum or zinc, filled for about half of its length with a compressed charge of primary explosive. The charge is fired either by an electric igniter or by a fuse, crimped into place, its end held firmly against the charge in order that the chances of a misfire may be reduced. Its action depends upon the development of an intense pressure or shock (p. 413).

At the time of this invention, fulminate of mercury was the only available explosive that could be used in the blasting caps. Nobel numbered the caps based on the amount of fulminate that each contained. For instance, detonator no. 1 had the least amount of fulminate (0.3 grams), while detonator no. 8 had the highest amount at 2 grams of mercury fulminate (Davis, 1941). The sizes also increased with the weight of fulminate contained in each detonator with the shortest being 16 mm and the longest 50-55 mm in length. Further modifications were made later with the black powder being replaced with potassium nitrate and ultimately potassium chlorate became the preferred substance of use especially in the US.

Dynamite

Nobel invented dynamite in his quest to come up with safe and practical ways of using nitroglycerine as an explosive. He discovered that nitroglycerine could be exploded through the subsequent explosion of a small device filled with gunpowder (Worek, 2010).

However, the amount of liquid nitroglycerin that could be used in this case was limited because the mixture had to be dry and in the form of granules. Nevertheless, this design failed because the mixture had to be exploded using fire, but the liquid in it reduced the effectiveness of the fire. Therefore, Nobel had to think of a way to overcome this challenge. In 1863, he started experimenting with the possibility of mixing nitroglycerine with a porous material as a way of stabilizing nitroglycerine for safe and effective detonation.

After successful experimentation, Nobel was granted a patent in 1867 for preparing an explosive by mixing nitroglycerine with non-explosive absorbents, such as silica and charcoal. The resulting substance from this mixture was called dynamite. Nobel knew that dynamite was less sensitive to shock as compared to liquid nitroglycerine. Additionally, dynamite could be exploded using fire or electrical spark. However, he had already invented the blasting cap detonator, and thus he preferred to use it in the detonation of the newly invented dynamite. Ultimately, diatomaceous earth was chosen as the most suitable non-explosive porous absorbent that could be used in the production of dynamite (Hopler, 2010).

Nevertheless, Nobel was not satisfied with the final model of dynamite at the time. He believed that he could invent a form of dynamite with an active base, and he did before patenting it. In this explosive, “the nitroglycerin was absorbed by a mixture of materials which were themselves not explosive separately, such as potassium, sodium, or ammonium nitrate mixed with wood meal, charcoal, rosin, sugar, or starch (Davis, 1941, p. 333). The nitroglycerine would then form a thin layer, which would explode in the presence of fulminate.

Nobel then discovered that nitroglycerine could not effectively prevent the hydrophilic tendencies of sodium and ammonium nitrate. The mixture containing these salts was normally deliquescent, and thus it would turn into liquid by attracting water from the atmosphere. As such, Nobel experimented with different substances and ultimately indicated that the addition of minute amounts of paraffin, naphthalene, or any related substances would stabilize the explosive.

For instance, any substance that is fatty in nature would form a coating on the explosive mixture of dynamite, which would prevent the absorption of moisture and the resultant danger from the transudation of nitroglycerine (Wargin & Pullen, 2009). Nobel further discovered that dissolving 8 percent of collodion cotton in nitroglycerine liquid converted it into a stable jelly, which would be used as a powerful high explosive (Davis, 1941).

This mixture did not require additional solvents if the nitroglycerine was warmed gently using a water bath. However, cotton collodion was expensive, and even though its mixture with nitroglycerine was highly explosive, other cheaper but less powerful mixtures were preferred. For instance, mixing nitroglycerine with oxidizing agents and combustible materials was cheap albeit the resultant gelatin product was less powerful.

Ballistite

In 1888, Nobel invented ballistite – a dense smokeless powder. At the time, Nobel was living in France and Paul Vieille, a French physicist, had invented the first smokeless powder in 1884 (Wargin & Pullen, 2009). This powder was being used extensively in the French navy and army. Nobel started experimenting to come up with an improved version of the available gunpowder. He ultimately came up with ballistite, which was a “stiff gelatinous mixture of nitroglycerin and soluble nitrocellulose in proportions varying between 1 to 2 and 2 to 1, prepared with the use of a solvent which was later removed and recovered” (Davis, 1941, p. 294).

Nobel discovered that substituting all the natural resins in celluloid with nitroglycerine would create a suitable propellant, which could be used as gunpowder. Initially, the natural resins of celluloid were dissolved in nitroglycerine before adding benzene. The mixture was then dried, pulped, and kneaded to allow the benzene to evaporate. The resulting material would be rolled between warm rollers to ensure that it is homogenous.

Later, Nobel discovered that nitro-starch could be used instead of nitrocellulose. A year later, Nobel made another discovery, which would change the manufacture of ballistite. He found out that ballistite could be manufactured using soluble nitrocellulose instead of natural resins or other solvents (Sundberg, 2017). In this model, soluble nitrocellulose would be mixed with nitroglycerine under water and heated to achieve gelatinization.

Alternatively, the gelatinization process would be catalyzed by adding more nitroglycerine than required in the final composition of the powder. The excess nitroglycerine would be removed using methyl alcohol. The resulting powder was the ballistite, and it was used in bullets and artillery shells (Davis, 1941). The French military did not adopt this form of gunpowder, but Nobel licensed it in Italy where it was used extensively in the military.

Gelignite

Gelignite is another name for blasting gelatin. In 1875, it became clear that dynamite was not powerful enough to be used in large-scale explosions. Therefore, Nobel came up with an idea of creating a powerful explosive. After numerous experiments, he found out that the only way to have highly powerful explosives was by ensuring that nitroglycerine was not mixed with numerous substances. The best option was to have nitroglycerine alone without impurities. However, liquid nitroglycerine could not be detonated safely (Klapotke, 2017). Therefore, it had to be stabilized with a different material apart from absorbents used earlier in the manufacture of dynamite.

In the course of his experimentation, Nobel found out that dissolving nitroglycerine in gun cotton or nitrocellulose formed a stable jelly, which he named gelignite. This explosive was better than gelatin because it was more powerful and versatile as it could be used underwater. Additionally, this gelatinized jelly did not have “sweating” problems associated with dynamite, whereby nitroglycerine oozed out of the mixture, thus making it dangerous and unsafe for use (Davis, 1941).

Therefore, gelignite was highly stable, hence safe to handle, and it could be molded into any desired shape depending on its different uses. However, gelignite was more expensive than dynamite, and its production was highly hazardous. Therefore, it was not manufactured in large quantities and companies and militaries opted to use dynamite because it was cheap and its production process was safer as compared to that of gelignite.

Nobel Peace Prize

Despite his numerous achievements as an inventor, scientist, and industrialist, Nobel was internally conflicted. He became a philanthropist by committing to donate part of his money to the poor and destitute. However, despite these good deeds, Nobel knew that he was regarded as nefarious especially due to the colossal wealth he gained from the sale of arms. This problem was compounded in 1888 when his brother died.

Nobel was mistaken for his brother and one newspaper had erroneously reported in its obituaries that the “merchant of death” was dead (Feldman, 2012). Consequently, he decided to bequeath 94 percent of his wealth to fund annual prizes in physics, chemistry, medical science, literature, and any person or society fighting for international peace. In 1901, the first Nobel Prizes were given to the deserving individuals. This is how the coveted Nobel Peace Prizes were born.

Conclusion

Alfred Nobel was an ambitious scientist, inventor, and a successful industrialist. Some of his notable inventions include nitroglycerin, the blasting cap detonator, dynamite, gelignite, and ballistite. The quest to make the production and use of nitroglycerine safe led to the discovery of dynamite and the blasting cap detonator. His works on nitroglycerine marked the turning point in his life and career because before his discovery, it could not be used meaningfully.

However, through stabilizing nitroglycerine using silica as an absorbent and detonating it with the blasting cap, Nobel revolutionized the production and use of explosives in industries and the military. He patented his discoveries in different jurisdictions in Europe and the US and amassed unprecedented wealth. Nevertheless, he was troubled that his inventions contributed to war and he made money out of it. Consequently, he left 94 percent of his wealth to be used for the Nobel Peace Prizes, which are given annually to individuals with outstanding performance in different fields.

References

Davis, T. L. (1941). The chemistry and the powder of explosions. New York, NY: John Wiley & Sons.

Fant, K. (2006). Alfred Nobel: A biography. New York, NY: Arcade Publishing.

Feldman, B. (2012). The Nobel Prize: A history of genius, controversy, and prestige. New York, NY: Arcade.

Hopler, R. B. (2010). The history, development, and characteristics of explosives and propellants. In A. Beveridge (ed.), Forensic investigations of explosions. New York, NY: CRC Press, pp. 1-19.

Klapotke, T. M. (2017). Chemistry of high-energy materials (4th ed.). Berlin, Germany: Walter de Gruyter GmbH.

Sundberg, R. J. (2017). The Chemical century: Molecular manipulation and its impact on the 20th century. New York, NY: Apple Academic Press.

Wargin, K., & Pullen, Z. (2009). Alfred Nobel: The man behind the peace prize. Ann Arbor, MI: Sleeping Bear Press.

Worek, M. (2010). The Nobel Prize: The story of Alfred Nobel and the most famous prize in the world. Richmond Hill, ON: Firefly Books.

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