Production of RDX
A World War II Development: Production of RDX
RDX (Research Department Explosive) known chemically as, cyclotrimethylenetrinitramine, is an explosive with greater power than TNT (trinitrotoluene)—the best known explosive material. Prior to 1940, when World War II started, the only process known to make RDX was very inefficient and was not feasible to be mass produced.
In 1940, Canadian Robert Schiessler, a graduate student of James H. Ross at McGill University, developed a novel and improved way to make RDX. His synthesis involved ammonium nitrate and hexamine—the waste product of the previous British method of RDX production. When the Ross-Schiessler process was communicated to the U.S. National Defence Council, his method was combined with the British method and the yield was doubled.
Another Canadian, George Wright at the University of Toronto, then adapted this combined method to process liquid feeds as well, and made it much more manageable for plant operations. Tennessee Eastman and the Canadian company Shawinigan Chemicals began production of RDX in 1942 for use by the Allies in the war. Production reached a peak of almost a million pounds a month before the end of the war.
Schiessler’s developments were described as, “The novel and important explosive development of World War
II, overshadowed only by the atomic bomb.” Outside of military applications, RDX is used today in controlled
demolition to raze structures.