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Being Essential: John Kramer

A monthly profile series featuring a Lab employee who exemplifies one of 9 traits identified in the Laboratory’s Purpose Statement
John Kramer

John Kramer

An engineer forging innovative paths to the future of high explosives

In a woodsy part of the Lab where elk linger outside his building, John Kramer is guiding the next generations of high explosives experts.

The Lab’s esteemed explosives enclave has been John’s turf since he was 19, mopping up water in big bays and growing accustomed to the shaking, rumbling world around him. Now 37 years later, John is a revered R&D engineer who holds two patents and keeps the Lab’s detonator powder production plant near S-Site and TA-9 humming to meet growing demands.

John’s current mentee, Reid Buckley, decided to go into explosives work after serving as a Marine in Afghanistan and other parts of Asia under the global war on terrorism known as Operation Enduring Freedom. Since graduating from Arizona State University last year with his bachelor's degree in chemical engineering, Reid has been working with John on pentaerythritol tetranitrate (PETN), a deadly, stable, colorless explosive that has reportedly been used in terrorist plots.

“One of the main lessons John has taught me is that few traits are as valuable to an engineer as determination, rigor and the discipline to double check your own work,” Reid says. “Every work action or project is tirelessly researched and vetted before it begins and includes constant oversight by one of us. Whether it’s weighing the same material over and over again to ensure that the results are perfect or habitually checking on a running process, our responsibility does not end until the project is finished. John has taught me that the quickest and easiest way to accomplish something is to do it perfectly the first time.”

Precision underpins every good batch. As John pours solvent into an agitation vessel (pictured above), the solvent will dissolve the PETN while being stirred, so he can pass the solution through a filter and downstream for further processing. 

John’s innovative work spans applications for conventional and nuclear weapons. He develops, tests and produces a variety of high explosives. The common thrust is that explosives have an inherent problem: they should be perfectly safe for handling and storage but also detonate powerfully and reliably on demand.

In High Explosives Science and Technology (M-7), a group of more than 50, John is a walking encyclopedia who gets stopped in the hall with questions like “what is this explosive soluble in?” By his side for the past two years has been one understudy after another, longing to soak up his acumen.

“Once the young engineer with interest and motivation to become skilled in explosives manufacturing, today John is transferring his expertise to young explosives engineers at LANL,” says M-7 Deputy Group Leader Sheldon Larson

Reid and John

Caption: Once a solution of PETN/acetone is passed through a filter it is temperature controlled in this tank. This jacketed tank allows the engineers to control temperature, pressure and agitation rate. John and Reid are looking for crystals that have not dissolved.

Los Alamos son

John was born into a Los Alamos family that upheld the Lab’s mission — his father, Frederick Kramer, was a mechanical engineer in the Weapons Program and his mother, Marcella Kramer, was a group administrator for isotope chemistry.

He has three brothers: an attorney, a PhD physicist (who worked briefly at LANL) and a plumber.

John says he found his calling in junior high in a chemistry set, and he played percussion in local bands (Flat Broke and the Speckleheads). Thanks to both, he headed to New Mexico State University on a music scholarship, spending summers as a student in the Lab’s explosives group.

In 1988, he joined the M-1 group at S-Site as a building engineer, supervising older technicians on a quest to discover safer explosives. He left for a few years to get his master’s in chemical engineering at Colorado State, and returned to Los Alamos right away.

Caption: John Kramer in front of the control panels for the jacketed vessels at the PETN Recrystallization Plant. Measurements of the setpoint, jacket temperature and liquid temperature are dialed up here.

Profound contributions

John wasn’t the kid who liked to blow stuff up, nor is that something he does now.

His focus has always been on the synthesis and formulation of high explosives used in LANL weapons systems, with a particular emphasis on scale-up and production of these materials. The chemists whip together the molecules, and he explores how processing changes can give you different materials and affect properties.

“When we’re making it, we don’t want it ever to explode,” John says. “When they’re fielding a sample at a firing site, they want it to always go off.”

His greatest achievement can be traced to 1997, when he completed a two-year effort to transfer the detonator production mission from Ohio’s Mound Laboratory (now defunct) to Los Alamos, including the ability to manufacture explosive powders used in detonators.

“John oversaw the design and construction of a facility at TA-9 that to this day produces detonator powder. He is currently the only experienced operator of the plant,” says Sheldon, his deputy group leader. “Part science and engineering, part intuition guided by experience, detonator powder production is a critical LANL mission that serves the needs of LANL and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.”

During the Manhattan Project, Los Alamos was a pioneer in inventing and producing high explosive detonators for early atomic weapons. As the weapons complex expanded after WWII, that function was stood up at Mound Laboratory, which operated from 1948 to 2003.

These days, John spends three-fourths of his time at the PETN Recrystallization Plant, working side by side with Reid.

“I’ve gotten a comprehensive course in the origin and basics of every commonly used explosive, and quite a few that are not common or used anymore,” Reid says. “If I find a paper that mentions something I have never heard of, odds are John knows how to make it, used to make it or knows why no one makes it.”

John says he likes the hands-on, problem-solving nature of his job. He explains how reserves of TATB (triamino-trinitrobenzene) were plentiful for a long time during the Cold War, so the nation’s industrial scale sources dried up. John had a hand in re-establishing production of TATB — the high explosive in modern U.S. nuclear weapons that is safer than conventional explosives because it is insensitive to high temperatures, shock and impact. He worked closely with Ted Benziger, the so-called father of insensitive high explosives.

Insensitive HEs are desirable because they are less prone to detonate accidentally; however, they are tricky to make without sacrificing performance or cost. That’s a problem he has worked on again and again. 

John's two patents are related to diaminoazoxy furazan (DAAF), which can boost the properties of rocket propellants and explosive formulations and won’t activate when dropped (similar to TATB). DAAF is still being evaluated, he says.

Caption: M-7's work supports high explosive detonator fabrication. Chemical engineers have a broad background in chemistry and materials science, which gives them insight into how processing can affect material properties. The ability to obtain more-vivid pictures of how materials age has been crucial to John Kramer's work over the years.

‘Outrageous’ Friday afternoons

John enjoys thinking of unusual ways of designing a process or solving a problem.

As an R&D engineer, he has worked on a variety of exciting projects: gun propellants, tank armor, new explosives research, explosives safety guidance for dismantling the B-53 bomb, TATB and PBX formulations at Holston Army Ammunition Plant, and more.

He recalls Friday afternoons in the 1980s as being the most fun of all. Those afternoons were reserved for “high-risk, outrageous” explorations of your own making. “You learn a lot from your mistakes,” John says.

Explorations on those Friday afternoons led to an important new computational method, he says. (Learn about the Stine/Kramer method in the next section.)

Today, John’s problem-solving prowess is inspiring. “His steady and unfailing work ethic has shown me that anything can be accomplished if you continue pushing forward and working on it,” Reid says.

Building on the legacy of Los Alamos chemical engineers

Recently, John has dug into the legacy of engineers to the weapons program, particularly chemical engineers, and the earliest days of the explosives group.

He holds up a 1949 photograph of Explosives group (GMX-2) at Gun Site. “My first team leader, Manuel Urizar, and chemical engineer Alphonso Popolato, are in that picture,” he says. “Their book, LASL Explosive Property Data, collects all the data about Los Alamos high explosives.”

1949 Explosives Group

John explains how his group built on their legacy. Like GMX-2, today’s M-7 covers a broad sweep of activities — making new explosives, analyzing the explosives chemically, developing the explosives into a larger-scale product that can be useful, and testing the safety and performance of the explosives.

“Having all this in one group allowed me to work on predicting explosives properties with the Stine/Kramer method to estimate heats of formation,” John says. Detonation velocity, a key measure of how a new explosive will perform, is affected by density, elemental composition and heat of formation.

With LANL’s J.R. Stine, John developed this important computational method. Their paper, “Estimation of heats of formation and the development of chemical databases useful for energetic materials,” was published in 1989 in Proceedings of the 26th JANNAF [Joint Army Navy NASA Air Force] Combustion Meeting.

John has documented the contributions of a number of Los Alamos chemical engineers and distilled their knowledge into something he can share with others. Among them are his mentors — Larry Hatler, Agapito “Agie” Torres and Ted Benziger — as well as weapons division leader George Hill and weapon/explosives group leader Harry Flaugh. Current chemical engineers managing weapons activities are Rob Bishop (Weapon Stockpile Modernization Division, Q-DO) and Jennifer Young (Weapon Systems Division, W-DO).

“So now I try to transfer what I know from my experiences and from my mentors to the new staff members and the new chemical engineers, but also try to recognize the tie to the past from the group’s earliest days,” John says.

Faced with an unrelenting demand for new and better ways to produce high explosives and modify their properties, the younger members of M-7 are borrowing technologies from pharmaceutical research, and John sees new directions ahead in additive manufacturing and nano-sized materials.

"In the final chapter of my career, I hope to help guide the younger staff and I'm excited to see where a new generation of scientists and engineers will take explosives R&D at Los Alamos," John says.