Also known as guncotton, cellulose nitrate, and pyroxylin. Made by reacting cellulose (such as cotton fibers) with nitric acid and sulfuric acid.

It is used for filtration, in lacquers, and for several other purposes. Curiously, it is an explosive, and for this purpose it is used in some forms of gunpowder.

How to make your own nitrocellulose

Ingredients:

  1. Lab goggles, gloves, and a lab coat.
  2. Glassware: a large beaker, a shallow pan (a deep baking dish or the like,) and a stirring rod.
  3. Ice.
  4. Nitric acid (HNO3, 70% concentration (16 molar.)
  5. Sulfuric acid (H2SO4, 98% concentration (18 molar.) Please be extremely careful with this. I cannot emphasize that enough. This is one of the strongest acids known to the human race, and it will kick your ass. Don't get it on you. Whatever you do, don't breathe the fumes. Wear your goggles whenever you're using the stuff, and be sure you have gloves on when you handle it. You Have Been Warned.
  6. Cotton. You can also use any other cellulose - paper, what have you. If you do use paper, make sure that it has a loose weave, and is not coated (as many magazine or high-quality printing papers are.)
  7. Distilled water (tap water will do in a pinch, but you won't get as nice a final product.)

Procedure:

  1. Don your safety gear. Acid burns on your hands are no fun. Burning your eyes out with acid would suck beyond belief (or so I'd imagine.)
  2. Make an ice bath: put ice and some water (doesn't have to be distilled) in your glass pan.
  3. Mix the acid: set your beaker in the ice bath. Pour in one part nitric acid, then add three parts sulfuric acid. Make sure you do it in that order, as the nitric acid is 30% water and we all know what happens when you add water to acid.
  4. Wait a bit: the mixture will get very hot, as the sulfuric acid strips the nitrate from the nitric acid. You need to wait until this reaction is complete before going on. The mixture may produce some steam. Do not inhale it. It's mostly water, but contains enough sulfuric acid to do serious damage to your lungs.
  5. Impregnate the cotton: once the mixture has cooled, drop some cotton (or whatever cellulose you decided to use) into the beaker and swish it around with your stirring rod. This allows the nitrate in the solution to bind to the cellulose. The amount of nitrate is limited, so don't add too much cotton - a couple of fist-sized lumps per 500ml solution seems safe.
  6. Remove and rinse the cotton: after a few minutes of stirring, remove the cotton from the acid mixture. I know I'm repeating myself here, but be very careful. Next, rinse the cotton very thoroughly with distilled water.
  7. Dry the cotton: shake the distilled water out of the cotton, and blot dry with paper towel. Lay the cotton on more paper towel and put it out to dry, or into a lab oven on low heat.

Troubleshooting:

  • "When I added the cotton to the beaker, it turned brown and disintegrated. Heavy, brown smoke came pouring out!" - You didn't wait for the acid reaction to finish, and the acids ate the cotton instead of each other. Start over.
  • "The cotton is turning brown and crumbly as it dries." - You didn't rinse the cotton thoroughly enough. You can try rinsing it some more if it isn't too far gone; otherwise, start over.
  • "My nitrocellulose doesn't burn, or doesn't burn vigorously." - Either it's not dry, or it's the end of a batch and the nitrates were depleted from the solution. Try some from the beginning of the batch.

Enjoy. Just a touch of flame will make the nitrocellulose disappear in a bright yellow-orange burst of light. Amaze your friends! Terrify your enemies! Convince primitive tribes that you are a fire god! Or you could do what I did, and blow up your mother's oven. Whatever floats your boat.

Ni`tro*cel"lu*lose` (?), n. [Nitro- + cellulose.] Chem.

See Gun cotton, under Gun.

 

© Webster 1913.

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