Nanotechnology is grabbing headlines for its potential in advancing the life sciences and computing research, but the Department of Defense (DoD) found another use: a new class of weaponry that uses energy-packed nanometals to create powerful, compact bombs.


With funding from the U.S. government, Sandia National Laboratories, the Los Alamos National Laboratory, and the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory are researching how to manipulate the flow of energy within and between molecules, a field known as nanoenergentics, which enables building more lethal weapons such as “cave-buster bombs” that have several times the detonation force of conventional bombs such as the “daisy cutter” or MOAB (mother of all bombs).



Researchers can greatly increase the power of weapons by adding materials known as superthermites that combine nanometals such as nanoaluminum with metal oxides such as iron oxide, according to Steven Son, a project leader in the Explosives Science and Technology group at Los Alamos.



“The advantage (of using nanometals) is in how fast you can get their energy out,” Son says.



Son says that the chemical reactions of superthermites are faster and therefore release greater amounts of energy more rapidly.



“Superthermites can increase the (chemical) reaction time by a thousand times,” Son says, resulting in a very rapid reactive wave.



Son, who has been working on nanoenergetics for more than three years, says that scientists can engineer nanoaluminum powders with different particle sizes to vary the energy release rates. This enables the material to be used in many applications, including underwater explosive devices, primers for igniting firearms, and as fuel propellants for rockets.



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