A Dynamite Business

From explosives to disinfectants, Copperhead Chemical adapts to changing times and markets

President and CEO Eric Brooks saw a need for Copperhead to diversify its offerings.

Adapting to change is a common theme at Copperhead Chemical Company, a sister corporation to Nitrochem Corp., headquartered in Mississauga, Ontario. Copperhead acquired its Tamaqua, Pennsylvania, site from ICI in 1997. Throughout its 100-plus years of operation under a variety of owners, Copperhead’s Tamaqua site has dealt with shifting marketplaces, changing technology, and product diversification.

In its previous incarnations as the Atlas Powder Company and, later, ICI Explosives, the company made many kinds of explosive material, as well as detonating devices for dynamite, inflation initiators for automobile airbags, and other products.

Nitrochem president and CEO Eric Brooks explains that, through the Tamaqua site’s history, a key product had been nitroglycerin, an essential component of dynamite (not to be confused with TNT). Mainly used in mining, construction, and demolition applications, dynamite was manufactured for decades at the site.

Copperhead’s Milestones

1912: Atlas Powder is spun off from EI du Pont de Nemours and Company

1971: Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI), London, purchases the facility—its major US competitor

1997: Nitrochem Corp. buys the ICI plant, and establishes Copperhead Chemical Company

2009: The company moves into life sciences, offering DNA/RNA syntheses activator chemicals, laboratory syntheses, etc.

2009: Copperhead begins development of proprietary dermal disinfectant

But usage of dynamite declined as alternatives, such as ammonium nitrate-based water gels and similar products, emerged. These provide comparable results and are more stable than nitro-based explosives. Add in the fact that the nitrate was about 80 percent cheaper than dynamite, and you’ll understand why its use has soared.

While owned by ICI, the 875-acre, cGMP-compliant site (current Good Manufacturing Practices) utilized sodium azide to manufacture airbag inflators.

“It was a good part of the business, but sodium azide became obsolete as newer inflation chemicals with fewer irritating by-products emerged,” Brooks says. “ICI chose to shut down airbag operations at both locations.”

A similar fate befell ICI’s electric detonator business. When the blasting industry’s preference shifted from single large explosions to electronically controlled, sequential smaller blasts, ICI discontinued the product line.

As time went on, Brooks says, ICI ended all involvement with any type of explosive materials. “When we took over operations in 1997, the company was totally dependent on medicinal nitroglycerin,” he says. With a century-plus of use in the treatment of angina and chronic heart failure, one would think that this life-saving compound would have a constant long-term market.

Not so.

“The market was actually starting to decline at the time,” Brooks says. “Cardiac surgery had improved to the point that stents and bypasses could offer patients permanent repairs to their hearts. Using nitro simply treated some symptoms, not the real cause of the problem. We found that our former ‘customers for life’ were becoming ‘customers for six months’; they used nitroglycerin only until they underwent cardiac surgery. Afterward, they didn’t need it anymore.”

Diversification was in order. Under Brooks’s guidance, Copperhead returned to its roots as a producer of “energetic materials.” These are substances that contain a high amount of stored chemical energy, such as explosives, pyrotechnic compositions (flash powder, gunpowder, etc.), propellants, and various fuels.

“We developed significant business in the supply of these materials to the military, for use in applications like rocket motors and torpedo fuel,” Brooks says. “But we realized that Copperhead needed to expand further.”

The company then began offering DNA/RNA syntheses activator chemicals, laboratory syntheses, and other cGMP custom-manufacturing services. That background has been beneficial, as Copperhead seeks regulatory approval for its proprietary product BioPolySan (BPS), an all-natural organic disinfecting agent. “We’ve been developing it for the past four years or so,” Brooks says. BPS is particularly effective against gram-positive bacteria and viruses, such as those that cause anthrax, botulism, tuberculosis, and strep throat.

Copperhead hopes to market its particular formulation as a disinfecting hand wash. “Most of the sanitizers today are alcohol-based,” Brooks says. “They work, but they also tend to dry out your skin. Our proprietary version would have a natural emollient in its base to mitigate dryness while fighting infections.” He adds that the product would stay on the skin longer, resulting in increased protection.

The key hurdle is regulatory approval. “Because the product is for application to the skin, it must be cleared by the Environmental Protection Agency,” he explains. “But all of its components are on the GRAS [generally recognized as safe] list, and you could eat it, if you wanted, with little chance of ill effects.”

The approval process will be expensive and time-consuming, but Brooks believes it will be worthwhile. “In addition to hand-sanitizing, it could be useful in mascara, as a treatment for surface cuts and in other applications,” he says. “We expect to attain substantial sales once everything is approved because it’s a unique product. We just have to get over the hurdles first.”