On February 24 of this year, the Russian military began its unprovoked invasion of Ukraine. Suddenly, war was in the news every day here and around the world. As the Ukrainian people continue to stun the world with their armed and brave resistance to the invasion, we thought this would be an interesting time to explore synthetic graphite’s use in military equipment and weapons. There are, of course, numerous examples where synthetic graphite is used in all the downstream industries that produce components for military equipment, such as in foundries (graphite electrodes) that produce the necessary steel, or in facilities that produce wheels for vehicles or body armor for soldiers (various types of graphite molds and dies). In addition to these graphite components used in these downstream industries, there are also examples where synthetic graphite is used directly in military equipment. We will look at two examples below where synthetic graphite is a component of actual military systems.
The first example is graphite nozzles, which are specially produced for use in high-powered rockets. These are the same types of nozzles that are used by numerous rocketry clubs, in fact. The principles and materials are applied similarly (but with a much higher degree of complexity) to the components of actual military rockets. Such is the degree of technologization of this material that certain synthetic graphite grades are placed by the US government on non-export item lists, meaning you can export those grades only under certain authorizations, and only to certain countries. In some cases, you cannot export them at all.
Going back to our subject, rocket nozzles are one of the most diverse parts of rocket engines. Sometimes, these graphite components can be as simple as a hole drilled into a synthetic graphite block. In more advanced systems, a machined nozzle can have its own liquid cooling system. For those of you familiar with synthetic graphite, you can probably guess why that material is the preferred one for these components: graphite can withstand extreme temperatures, the kind that results from the intense combustion that powers rockets. Not only that, but synthetic graphite is also not very reactive. Even the acidic and volatile byproducts of an ammonium perchlorate composite propellant will not deteriorate it.
A second example of synthetic graphite used in actuall military applications is the graphite bomb. This weapon is indeed a bomb, but a non-lethal one. It is not built to take human lives, but rather to disable electrical equipment, power grids, and communication equipment. To these electrical systems, the graphite bomb is quite lethal. It can incapacitate any network that uses electrical current by causing short circuits.
Since information coming out of Ukraine and Russia is sparse and sometimes unreliable, it would be difficult to assess the role that graphite, and its uses in weapons systems, is playing in the conflict. What is clear when thinking about this issue is the strategic importance of synthetic graphite, which we have also seen is crucial to the green economy and battery storage, issues that will also have huge geopolitical effects in the coming decades.