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The Chemistry Of Gunpowder Essay

956 words - 4 pages

Improving warfare technology was an extremely important aspect of the Civil War.  Gunpowder or black powder played an important role in the Civil war and gunpowder involves a great deal of chemistry.  It consists of three ingredients sulfur, charcoal, and potassium nitrate (saltpeter).  For only three ingredients the chemical reaction is a very complicated and its chemical equation is 4 KNO3 + C7H4O + 2 S ------> 2 K2S + 4 CO2 + 3 CO + 2H2O + 2 N2.  The KNO3 is potassium nitrate, the C7H4O is charcoal, and the S is sulfur.  What many people don’t know is that black powder doesn’t cause an explosion.  The explosion is actually caused by the buildup of gases released during the chemical ...view middle of the document...

 
The second important ingredient is charcoal.  Charcoal is the fuel and is extremely important.  If you light saltpeter nothing really happens, but with a substance like charcoal, it becomes a dangerous weapon (Jim, 2009)(Rosen, 2006).  Since charcoal is an important fuel, it is important to have high quality charcoal.  This is usually made from willow and occasionally other woods like Hazelwood.  Charcoal isn’t exactly the barbecue briquettes, but merely burnt wood.  The wood can be put in a pot until there is charred wood and that charred wood is charcoal (Bretscher, 2009).  Charcoal is the ideal fuel because it is almost pure carbon and has lots of air holes because it comes from wood.  These tiny holes actually trap all important oxygen needed for combustion.  However, sometimes honey is used.  This doesn't work as well because it contains water, which is not good for combustion (Bishop, Royal Institution, 2008).
The third and final ingredient is arguably the most important ingredient and it is potassium nitrate (KNO3) or saltpeter.  This ingredient is so important because it’s the oxidizer.  It is called an oxidizer because when the saltpeter is heated, it creates oxygen.  Oxygen is crucial for combustion.  An example of this is an experiment where there is flammable powder on a plate, it barely burns.  This is because only the outer surface is touching the air and the oxygen.  If the same powder is blown over a candle, it makes for a fiery show.  This is because more particles are exposed to oxygen (Bishop, Royal Institution, 2008).  The same concept goes for gunpowder except instead of the air, there is the oxidizer potassium nitrate.  Since potassium nitrate was so crucial, there were big mining operations during the Civil War.  It forms particularly well in dry caves like Mammoth Cave.  In this...

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