Herakles, an eco-friendly manufacturer
The LICORNE* biological treatment station at the Saint-Médard-en-Jalles site, located near Bordeaux, has been up and running since January 2014 and was officially inaugurated on April 24. The facility is one of a kind in Europe since it harnesses bacteria, thereby offering an eco-friendly alternative to current solutions used for eliminating propellant. "Until recently incineration was the only means of elimination used," confirms Anthony Schyns, Head of the Disposal Program at Herakles. We now use a biological treatment process to eliminate propellant which mainly consists of ammonium perchlorate. This chemical compound is extracted through maceration in hot water before being broken down by specific bacteria, enabling us to collect the clean effluents. It's very much an innovative process used by Herakles. »
The culmination of twenty years' R&D
The new facility is the fruit of research work initiated way back in the 1990s. It was tested in a laboratory as well as in the field, with the installation of pilot facilities at the Kourou Space Centre, before being set up at Saint-Médard-en-Jalles, making it possible to fine-tune the process and progressively increase the treatment capacity from one ton to thirty tons a year. As things stand, the LICORNE station is capable of eliminating an impressive 300 tons of ammonium perchlorate a year, which covers all current needs.
As the project's financial partner, the French defense procurement agency (DGA) is the facility's main client. The DGA and Herakles have undertaken to spend the next ten years disposing of M45 and M51 missiles as well as treating the propellant and ammonium perchlorate waste produced during manufacturing processes or found in rocket engines at the end of their life cycle. "The LICORNE station enables us to guarantee our clients that their waste is disposed of in an eco-friendly way. As far as they're concerned, it's a real plus," points out Schyns.
A market with real potential
The time and resources that the DGA and Herakles have invested in the new station will be amortized, as the station seems to have a bright future ahead: "From 2016 onwards, the legislation calls for propellant incineration restrictions. This could see an increasing number of manufacturers turn towards our solution," states Schyns. We have anticipated this by ensuring that our facility has a bigger treatment capacity than is currently required.»
* Ligne Industrielle de Collecte des Objets pyrotechniques et de Réduction Naturelle des Effluents (collection line for pyrotechnic objects and natural reduction of effluents).
A four-step process
The LICORNE facility treats propellant manufacturing waste as well as rocket engines at the end of their life cycle.
- The rocket engines are dismantled and separated. This mainly involves dismantling the igniter and rear assembly.
- The casing of the loaded engines is then drained using a high-pressure water jet. The skeleton of the engines can be reused or sent to a recycling plant.
- The propellant collected is then ground and macerated to extract the ammonium perchlorate - a compound that makes up 70% of propellant. The other components are non-pyrotechnic and can be treated in an appropriate manner.
- The ammonium perchlorate gets broken down through a biological process using specific bacteria developed by Herakles, which turn it into nitrogen and chloride.