A chemistry department at a British university was recently evacuated after a student made the known explosive, TATP.
The chemical, tri-cyclic acetone peroxide, or TATP, was made by accident as the product of a chemistry experiment. But although the TATP in question came as an unwelcome surprise – the Ministry of Defence was forced to carry out a controlled disposal – there are many labs around the world which do design and make explosives for interest and application. Here are five of these non-nuclear chemicals which all explode via the rapid release of gas.
One of the most commonly known explosive chemicals is trinitrotoluene, or TNT, which has featured extensively in video games and films. It is often mistaken as dynamite, perhaps fuelled by examples of confusion in popular culture, such as AC/DC’s song TNT with lyrics such as “I’m TNT. I’m dynamite”.
TNT is a yellow solid and was first produced as a dye in 1863. It doesn’t explode spontaneously and is very easy and convenient to handle, so its explosive properties were only discovered some 30 years later by German chemist Carl Häussermann in 1891.
TNT can even be melted and poured into vessels without so much as a flicker of excitement but it will explode with the help of a detonator – and with a great deal of force, since the nitro groups in the molecule rapidly turn into nitrogen gas. This makes it ideal for use in controlled demolitions, where the explosive can be planted and detonated when planned (for example by miners), making it a relatively “safe” explosive. It’s also used as a “standard measure” for bombs, so the “explosiveness” of other chemicals is often measured relative to TNT.
The chemical TATP belongs to a group of molecules named peroxides, which contain weak and unstable oxygen-oxygen bonds, and that are not found in TNT. This means that TATP is a lot less stable and more prone to spontaneously exploding.
TATP is also known as the “mother of satan” and with good reason – its explosions are known to be about 80% as strong as TNT, but the substance is much harder to handle. A firm shock or knock is enough to trigger an explosion, which means it’s quite easy to accidentally blow yourself up in the process of making it – and good reason to evacuate your chemistry department if it is accidentally made.
TATP has also received a lot of media attention because it is easy to make and has been regularly used in improvised explosive devices (IEDs) associated with terror attacks such as the London 7/7 bombings in 2005.
RDX is a “nitrogen explosive”, meaning that its explosive properties are due to the presence of many nitrogen-nitrogen bonds, rather than oxygen. These bonds are extremely unstable, since nitrogen atoms always want to come together to produce nitrogen gas because the triple bond in nitrogen gas. And the more nitrogen-nitrogen bonds a molecules has, like RDX, typically the more explosive it is.