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  1. #76
    Member Cordite's Avatar
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    May 2017
    NZ Mainland (Dunedin)
    Ullrich Bretscher's page discusses one of the inventive ways of improving on Black Powder at the end of its era while Nitrocellulose based powders replaced it. One such powder was "brown powder", or "prismatic powder" or "cocoa powder" made with brown charcoal. Brown charcoal is charcoal charred at a lower temperature. Brown powder was more powerful than black powder. But there were anecdotes of it being less stable and more prone to go off by itself. One theory is that the magazine explosion which sank the USS Maine in Havana Harbour (triggering the Spanish American War of 1898) was caused by brown powder, but the cause is still debated.

    USS Maine blows up, this may be a screenshot of contemporary cellphone footage but I cannot confirm that:
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    Brown powder was made with 1%-3% sulphur instead of 10% sulphur as the brown charcoal itself made up for the lack of sulphur, both by lowering ignition temperature and also by acting as a binder, it having some tar left in it. The powder was made by charring straw with hot steam at a desired temperature. (This is the modern method of making "activated charcoal" as the hot steam causes the charcoal to be more porous and have a larger, reactive surface area).

    Image of prism powder, click on image to see article on victorianshipmodels.com
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    Interesting enough, the coastal batteries at Oamaru had similar rifled muzzle loading cannons as depicted in the link.

    I came across some interesting Wikipedia information on the charcoal component which somewhat explains the behaviour of brown powder:

    The question of the temperature of the carbonization of wood is important:
    220 C (428 F) Brown charcoal.
    280 C (536 F) Deep brown-black, after some time.
    300 C (572 F) Brown, soft and friable, and readily inflames at 380 C (716 F).
    310 C (590 F) An easily powdered mass.
    Higher temperatures: Hard and brittle charcoal which does not fire until heated to about 700 C (1,292 F).

    I note Ulrich Bretscher made his BP with charcoal charred to 350C (the temperature at which smoke stops being given off) and he found that the ignition temperature of his sulfur-free smokeless black powder was 440C, while his sulfur-containing black powder ignited at 300C. He determined his sulphur-free smokeless black powder was some 10% less powerful than the traditional recipe (but NB, this was sulfur free powder made with black charcoal, not brown charcoal).

    For the historical brown powder, the the ignition temperature was artificially increased and burn rate reduced by reducing sulphur content. The brown charcoal, being slightly tarry, took over the role of sulphur as a binder and for cannon use it was hydraulically pressed into prismatic powder to further slow the burn rate. Brown powder provided higher impulse power than black powder as it combusted into carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide which were both of a lower molecular weight compared to hydrogen sulphide from burning sulphur - i.e., more gas volume for same powder weight.

    So, if one makes black powder it's worth looking into smokeless, not-so-black, powder.
    zimmer and Micky Duck like this.
    "I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book." Groucho Marx



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