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Biodegradable bullets that sprout plants: US defense agency’s eco-friendly munitions dream

A 10th Mountain Division soldier plugs his ears while comrades fire a 105mm Howitzer during a training mission for future conflicts on May 18, 2016 at Fort Drum, New York.
A 10th Mountain Division soldier plugs his ears while comrades fire a 105mm Howitzer during a training mission for future conflicts on May 18, 2016 at Fort Drum, New York. (John Moore/Getty Images)

The U.S. Department of Defense is inviting design and manufacturing proposals for training ammunition that would contain seeds that can eventually sprout into plants.

In a call for proposals published Nov. 30, 2016 on the website of the government’s Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program, the Department of Defense outlines the objective of developing “biodegradable training ammunition loaded with specialized seeds.”

The report observes that the U.S. Army “manufactures and consumes hundreds of thousands of training rounds” which include small bullets as well as “40mm grenades… shoulder-launched munitions; 120mm tank rounds; and 155mm artillery rounds.”

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These rounds tend to be abandoned wherever they land because cleaning them up is either impractical or, in the case of rounds that get buried several feet underground, impossible.

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Trouble is, these rounds contain components that can take “hundreds of years or more” to biodegrade, making them an environmental hazard. They could also spook civilians who come across them and mistake them for live rounds.

To get around this problem, the Department of Defense wants to manufacture training rounds that incorporate naturally occurring biodegradable materials in place of commonly used components. It even suggests some potential candidates including bamboo, plant matter and soy-based fibers.

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The plants that emerge from these biodegradable bullets should be safe for animals to consume without any ill effects, the report notes.

The brief also outlines how the approved contractor will work with the SBIR and Department of Defense to develop and deliver prototypes.

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