A Critical Chemical Cautionary Tale …and The Moral of The Story

A long time ago, some say the saga began in aught nineteen, an observant person working in the Pentagon's subbasement saw a looming threat. A threat to on-time deliveries of an important chemical needed for tactical rocket motors – butane triol, also known as 1,2,4-trihydroxybutane. When it reacts with a mixture of nitric and sulfuric acids, some nasty chemicals to handle, it yields the much-used plasticizer Butane Triol Trinitrate. One may now ask, what's a plasticizer, and why should I care? Plasticizers (2) are used in everyday plastics (polymers) to improve flexibility, extensibility, and processability.

In other words, this type of additive allows the processing of plastics into articles used by everyone. In the world of rocket motors and different energetics, a plasticizer is critical to ensure safe handling and performance of the munition. Without chemicals such as Butane Triol, the safety and performance of weapon systems are at risk. So, what did this observant person, Cuthbert Snodgrass, do? Well, Cuthbert, at that time, was an aspiring GS-11 who, at the next group staff meeting, informed his boss, Wilma Flintmore, a GS-12, of his observation.

At the next branch meeting, Wilma told her boss, Edna Milner, a GS-13, that there was a looming threat to our nation's munition production. Edna immediately worried and told her boss, Division Director Elmer Witherspoon, a GS-14. Elmer was preparing to go on two weeks of annual leave and promised to address this issue upon his return. He delayed his return as he went on a cruise on the ship Diamond Princess. Unfortunately, he was one of the first to contract the just-discovered virus, SARS-CoV-2, soon known as COVID-19. 

Fortunately, Elmer recovered without any side effects. He returned to work, not at the Pentagon, but to his home to begin 18 months of remote site telework. Because of all the trauma and confusion, he forgot about Edna's worry until early aught 21 when Edna asked for a SITREP (3) on their previous conversation. Elmer was very apologetic and promised to take immediate action. Indeed, Elmer bypassed his GS-15 boss at much personal and professional risk and sent an email to Betsy Inglebottom, a newly promoted member of the Office of Secretary of Defense's Senior Executive Service. Betsy immediately saw the need and tasked an outside technical expert in the field of energetics to investigate and return no later than 180 days hence with recommendations.

The outside technical expert, a group of talented people in energetics, pulled together a team of brilliant people to solve the problem. This organization, Engineers for Technical Competence (ETC), faced an immediate choice – subcontract to someone else or solve the problem themselves. ETC, an organization led and staffed by some of the most caring individuals in the country's national security establishment, knew they had to figure this problem out for themselves. It was too important to pass through to others. What did they do? Upon reporting to Betsy and receiving financial support, ETC took on the job.

Thanks to our deep bench of talent, including super-smart consultants who share ETC's commitment to excellence, we identified a mid-size cosmetic company. Hand Lotions Are Us (HLAU, a New York Stock Exchange symbol) in Fargo, North Dakota, produced a hand lotion that generated butane triol as a "waste product.”

We set on a trip to Fargo in January of that year (these people are dedicated as the average daily high temp was -23F) to ask the question: Can the U.S. government buy your waste product? The answer was a resounding "Yes!!!!" Their annual production of 4.7864 metric tons coincided with the military need requirement of 4.01 metric tons per year. ETC did a quick analysis and determined that the product available had been classified as a technical grade. The DoD needed Mil-Spec quality and, after purification, would yield 4.02 metric tons.

There was much joy and excitement in Fargo that day, even though a blizzard was on its way and stranded us for two extra days at the local Comfort Inn. Even though I had a low-bandwidth Wi-Fi system and ran out of coffee for the complimentary breakfast, ETC communicated its discovery to Betsy and her staff. Joy permeated the halls of the Pentagon, down to the subbasement and Cuthbert. He had since been promoted to GS-12, making his family quite proud.

We thought we had solved the problem. Well, not quite! One issue still needed to be resolved. We asked HLAU if they could purify the butane triol to Mil-Spec grade, to which ETC received an immediate "No!" HLAU was willing to give the DoD the material in question if they would pay for the shipping containers (recyclable barrels) and commit to hauling the stuff away. Upon consultation with her staff, Betsy determined that there was no better deal. She agreed to the terms within her assigned responsibilities and asked ETC to work on the details since it had done so much great work thus far in this process. 

Of course, ETC took on the challenge and first found a shipping company to haul the material someplace, but where? We asked an existing U. S. military arsenal located in Duluth, MN, to take on the job of receiving and purifying the butane triol. They said that they could retool an idle distillation tower and do the job for the low price of $56.876M (lots of thought went into this number) provided the U. S. government would guarantee a twenty-year procurement of the purified material. 

Betsy didn't have this level of budget authority. She asked her boss, who asked his boss, who asked her boss, who asked a political appointee who informed the organization that he had been offered a lucrative job in the private sector, and was leaving the next day. After two months of waiting for a temporary person to run the show, the answer was, "wait till the election is over to see if someone new is coming in." The election happened, and no new person was coming in, so the temporary acting boss gave a tentative "maybe." The Duluth folks then replied with a "no can do.”

ETC, being both resilient and resourceful, then asked a lab set up to do this kind of thing, or so they thought if they could do the job of purification. They said, "What are you talking about, this is a production job, and we are a lab with prototype capabilities only." Still undaunted, ETC proceeded to work with Congress and secured, along with state of Delaware funding, resources to build a facility dedicated to this job and the production of special glass vials for handling COVID-20 and 21 vaccines.

After only 6.3 years, the new facility came online and began purifying the butane triol. But, since the original requirement for this material was codified, the U. S. DoD lab in Guam developed a new energetic material known as Guam Lab -1 (GL-1), which was incompatible with butane triol in all formulations. And, since GL-1 was qualified (4) for all munitions, the U.S. government now had to dispose of 211.567 metric tons of butane triol. To solve this problem, Betsy (currently the subject OSD office's political appointee) again turned to ETC to figure it out.

What's The moral of This Story?

  • Supply chain management requires expertise and hard work to identify all the issues involved.
  • Once the issues have been identified, they most likely become obsolete before any definitive and lasting actions are taken.
  • There are three rules to always keep in mind:
    • Rule #1, everything changes all the time and without warning; Rule #2, there is no Rule #2; Rule #3, if there is no Rule #2, there can be no Rule #3.
  • A lot is riding on this task, and subcontracting to others must proceed with caution. When a company states, "We have no chemical engineers but can subcontract that out," all involved must think hard about the next steps.
  • This type of work is expensive and takes a long time to complete.
  • Have a plan for courses of action 1 through X. Remember that a battle plan is valid to the point of engaging the enemy.
  • True experts in supply chain management are busy doing other things, and attracting their attention will take a lot of work.
  • Only some people in the DoD understand the challenges to be overcome in addressing this type of issue.
  • There will be a quiz on this material. Your grade will be reflected on your permanent record.  


  1. Some of this is real, some of this is unreal
  2. https://polymer-additives.specialchem.com/selection-guide/plasticizers
  3. SITREP = Situational Report
  4. Admitted total fiction here