In the Powder Workshop

15. August 2023

Europe needs ammunition. It is required not only for Ukraine, but also for member states’ own military forces. At its factory in Aschau, Nitrochemie – a subsidiary of Rheinmetall – works around the clock to make the urgently needed propellant powders and systems for tank ammunition and artillery shells.

I need ammunition, not a ride.” That was what Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy said shortly after the Russian attack on his country began. His words are no less timely even in the second year of the war – quite the opposite, in fact. The EU, NATO and of course Ukraine itself urgently need artillery shells above all. Procuring them is a top priority for the highest levels of government.

Let us switch from the global stage to the small town of Aschau am Inn. It is home to the German operation of Rheinmetall subsidiary Nitrochemie, which has a second location in Wimmis, Switzerland. Since October 2022, the production division for propulsion systems has been operating across four shifts, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The facility in Aschau makes propellant powders and nitrocellulose casings for large-caliber weapons systems – essential for the production of ammunition. A shell essentially consists of a casing, fuze, explosive and propellant, or a separate propellant system. The latter create the pressure required to catapult the projectile out of the barrel of a gun.

(Image: Ralf Grothe, 2023)

Dr. Georg Lingg

Born in 1964. Georg Lingg has been CEO of Rheinmetall subsidiary Nitrochemie’s sites at Wimmis, Switzerland, and Aschau, Germany, since 2014. Born in Leimen in 1964, he originally trained as a mechanical engineer.

Precision and Safety

To the outside observer, it may not be immediately apparent that this is a high-pressure working environment. The administrative offices and several dozen smaller buildings are distributed across a sprawling 95-hectare site, with no giant factory building in sight. The compartmentalized layout is a matter of safety, because the workforce is almost literally sitting on a powder keg. It is essential to ensure that if an incident involving high explosive were to occur, any risk of a chain reaction would be ruled out. Safety first is also the motto of Georg Lingg, who has been the CEO of Nitrochemie since 2014. “Safety is always number one. Then comes product quality, and then quantity. Always in that order.”

Lingg, a trained mechanical engineer, heads up the operations at both Aschau and Wimmis. “In Switzerland, we make the key raw materials that are needed in Aschau to manufacture the propellant powders, which means mainly what we call the raw mixtures of nitrocellulose and nitroglycerin.” These are transported to Aschau by good old-fashioned rail. This may sound distinctly dangerous, but it is actually “not a problem at all,” says Oliver Becker. Becker, a process engineer with a doctorate in technical chemistry, is responsible for powder manufacture in Aschau in his capacity as production manager. “Twenty-five percent of the raw mixture is replaced with water. You couldn’t ignite it even with a lighter.”

Once it reaches Aschau, the raw mixture is blended with various substances. These include stabilizers, flash suppressants and other sources of energy that can be used to alter the burn rate. After all, the powder does not detonate, but burns in a controlled manner – albeit at immense speed.

The enriched “paste” is then ready for the roller. The pressure exerted by the roller expels the water from the raw mixture entirely mechanically, without the use of chemicals. Becker is visibly proud of this: “Not everyone can do that.” The process creates a sheet two millimeters thick, rather like a carpet, which is then rolled up.

The “Powder” Is a Pellet

The next stop is the press. The key part of this is the die, which varies depending on the product being made. The press produces a kind of cable that is then cut into little cylindrical pellets – the propellant powder. Tiny holes in the cable are among the features that determine the burn rate. The more holes there are, the more gradual the burn, ranging from 1 to 19. Propellants for artillery shells generally have more holes.

Nitrocellulose is a byproduct of cotton, hence its common name of “guncotton.” Consequently, the place of origin and weather conditions can result in variations in the properties of the material. The end product, however, must meet identical standards of precision at all times. This means that the batches of powder need to undergo further homogenization.

Producing propellant powder to the highest standards of quality is the stated mission of Nitrochemie in Aschau. Demand for propulsion systems is immense, but that is all the more reason to keep a cool head in production. Precision, not mass production, is the order of the day. (Image: Robert Wagner)
The raw mixture made from nitrocellulose comes from the Swiss site in Wimmis. In Aschau, it is first stored in a dedicated building to allow it to settle before undergoing further processing. (Image: Robert Wagner)
The powder is rolled to expel the water from it. This involves pushing the mixture through a wafer-thin roller gap. Entry to the roller room is prohibited during the process, so technical project manager Andreas Hofmann supervises proceedings on a monitor.
The product of the rolling process: a “carpet” of nitrocellulose about 2 mm thick. (Image: Robert Wagner)
This sheet is rolled by hand into a roll weighing over 20 kg, (Image: Robert Wagner)
The employee needs to wear a respirator mask due to the fumes produced. (Image: Robert Wagner)
which is then taken to the press for further processing. (Image: Robert Wagner)
Internal process monitoring involves regularly checking powder samples. (Image: Robert Wagner)
This involves more than just making sure the dimensions are correct. (Image: Robert Wagner)
Cotton, the raw material from which nitrocellulose is manufactured, is a natural product and so subject to variations. The powder is therefore homogenized to ensure consistent quality at all times. (Image: Robert Wagner)
The casings for the propellant charges are also manufactured in Aschau. The casings for the tank shells shown here are made from nitrocellulose. After a process known as “felting,” Nitrochemie employee Peter Baal places them in a kind of press that extracts the remaining water. They then proceed to a lathe for the final machining step. (Image: Robert Wagner)

Less Industrial Plant, More Small-Scale Factory

Aschau is a round-the-clock operation. Yet the way in which these highly sensitive materials are processed is anything but mass production, no matter how urgently they are needed. Every step is carried out by hand – every box, roll and powder container is transported separately to the various production stages in stand-alone buildings for further processing. The principle of “safety first” extends to even the tiniest details of manufacturing. For example, forklift trucks in sensitive areas of production are equipped with explosion protection to ensure that powder dust cannot ignite if it should come into contact with a hot surface.

The one place that appears a little more spacious is the filling facility. There, the powder is poured into a nitrocellulose casing that has previously been fitted with an ignition amplifier, also made in house. Some of the powder pellets need to be weighed out by hand to ensure the high level of precision necessary for the charge weight. The Nitrochemie factory makes products including the modular charge systems for the now-famous Panzerhaubitze 2000 armored howitzer. The powder used to be loaded into artillery pieces inside fabric bags. Depending on the calculated range and trajectory, only some of the bag’s contents were used and the rest of the powder was discarded. With the modular charge system, the charge can be measured out precisely without any wastage. Becker likes to compare the system to ink cartridges for fountain pens.

The finished charge modules are packed in special plastic or metal containers, depending on customer preference, which are then loaded onto pallets. It goes without saying that the widely used EUR pallet is not an option in this case because of the enormously demanding transportation safety requirements. The pallets and the cartridge packaging need to be capable of coping with temperatures as high as 71°C and as low as –51°C, withstanding the kinds of vibrations that might be experienced in vehicles such as helicopters and surviving the impact of falling from a height of 36 meters (from a container ship into the sea, for example).

Nitrochemie Group

A Swiss-German company, Nitrochemie Group is based in Wimmis in the Swiss canton of Bern and in Aschau am Inn in the German state of Bavaria.

Business Areas

Propulsion systems (propellant powders) and chemical intermediates (including the production of silicone binders used in commercially available silicone cartridges).







Both sites have long histories. Powder has been manufactured in Wimmis since the end of the First World War. The Aschau site has been producing powder since 1953, initially under the name WNC Nitrochemie before being acquired by Rheinmetall in 1994.

The Powder & Charges division of SM Schweizerische Munitionsunternehmung AG in Wimmis merged with WNC Nitrochemie in 1998 to form Nitrochemie AG. The Aschau site has traded as Nitrochemie Aschau GmbH ever since, and the Swiss location as Nitrochemie Wimmis AG.

Oliver Becker has been in charge of production at the Aschau site since 2018 in his capacity as Senior Vice-President of Operations. Born in Munich, he is a process engineer with a doctorate in technical chemistry. (Image: Robert Wagner)

Recruitment Drive

In late February 2022, soon after war broke out in Ukraine, Nitrochemie began to expand its powder capacity in Aschau. The biggest challenge was finding staff in the local area, which is largely rural. “The labor market in the Aschau region is virtually non-existent,” says Lingg. The management, though, had a few ideas up their sleeves. “We launched a full-scale recruitment drive, with commercials in movie theaters, flyers, out-of-home advertising and a career day in cooperation with the employment office. This allowed us to begin operating 24/7 in powder manufacturing from October 1 onward, increasing our production volume by around 40%.”

At the start of 2022, Nitrochemie had 440 employees. By the end of 2023, there will be 510 people working in Aschau. “That’s a big number, especially considering the fact that the growth is happening exclusively in the propulsion systems division and not in chemicals,” says Becker. “In addition, with so many new personnel, the entire company infrastructure is growing, with additional facilities such as showers, locker rooms and break rooms.”

Biodiversity In Aschau

Any modern company needs to ensure that its operations are sustainable wherever possible. Naturally derived ingredients are used in propulsion systems at Nitrochemie, as Lingg explains: “Our basic raw materials are made from a special cotton fiber. The nitroglycerin comes from glycerol. In other words, our products are already inherently pretty sustainable. That may sound strange, but it’s true.” – “Incidentally, the production of the rolled powder in Aschau is sustainable in itself, because it does not require any solvents,” adds Becker.

The site houses its own wastewater treatment plant, where biological methods are employed. The premises are surrounded by forest, with no hunting and very little noise or traffic, and Becker enjoys seeing examples of biodiversity on a daily basis. “We have deer wandering through, badgers, lots of different species of birds, and there’s a beaver lodge down at the river. The assorted flora and fauna seem to like it here!”

Hard Work and Dedication

Propellant powders are going to continue to be very much in demand. This represents a major undertaking for manufacturers, especially considering the fact that almost every step of the process needs to be carried out by hand and an enormous amount of work needs to be devoted to safety. “We really do have a diverse array of assignments to deal with. There are technical challenges requiring broad knowledge,” says Becker – but that, he adds, is exactly what makes his job so exciting. One of the most important aspects is maintaining team spirit among employees, “especially those working in different units.”

Lingg is also passionate about his job. “Apart from all the people that my work gives me the opportunity to meet, one thing that really has an impact on me is the fact that we are making a product that is essential for supporting Ukraine and safeguarding Europe’s defence capabilities,” he says, “and I’ve noticed that there has been a massive upswing in appreciation for the defence industry lately. I think that is a very positive development.”

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