Nitroglycerin In The Park Of My Youth
    By Enrico Uva | October 16th 2011 05:11 AM | 12 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
    About Enrico

    I majored in chemistry, worked briefly in the food industry and at Fisheries and Oceans. I then obtained a degree in education. Since then I have...

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    The internet is filled with recipes for explosives. It's sometimes forgotten that eight years before 9/11, terrorists bombed the World Trade Center with a mixture of explosives including hydrogen gas, urea nitrate, and nitroglycerin. Two compounds were prepared in a Jersey City apartment from recipes found on the internet.

    A Google search for acetone peroxide (triacetone triperoxide or TATP), the so-called "Mother of Satan" explosive often used by other terrorists, yields 152 000 results, including a supposedly "safe version" of the recipe on a Metacafe video.

    But urea nitrate, nitroglycerin, and acetone peroxide are far from being new chemicals. They were first prepared in ~1800, 1847 and 1895, respectively. Nitroglycerin's discoverer, Italian chemist Ascanio Sobrero, warned against its use, but seventeen years later, Alfred Nobel's brother and several factory workers died in a nitro factory explosion.

    But the fact that even people in the business of preparing explosives have been killed has not deterred amateurs from taking huge risks. Decades before the internet, similar recipes for explosives were widely available in textbooks, magazines and even in a high school library book, which is what first stirred my curiosity.

    In attempting to prepare nitroglycerin, we weren't
    actually trying to destroy anything and certainly not planning on harming anyone. We just foolishly wanted to create an explosion for the sake of entertainment. I had read that mixing the required acids would create the reactive nitronium ion necessary to attack the glycerin molecule, and that the creation of the acidic solution and of the nitroglycerin itself released a lot of heat. This was not a minor detail because the heat was more than enough to trigger an explosion in the face of the would-be chemist. In light of this, we decided to carry out the reaction in the snow, in the middle of a park, on a school night when no one was likely to pass by.

    To a vessel in a pit that we dug out of the snow, we mixed the acids, waited, slowly added drops of glycerin, and then ran back to watch. Instead of an explosion, a thick fountain of brown smoke of what presumably was nitrogen dioxide shot out of the ashtray that we had used as a reaction vessel. Using it as such was almost as dumb a decision as making nitro since the tray was made out of a thick glass---one whose fragments would have projected in all directions had the synthesis been successful. But luckily impurities in our mixture probably caused preventive side-reactions.

    In my rush to secretly "borrow" the acids from the school lab prep room, I had not obtained any glycerin. I was also fortunate enough not to have known that pure glycerin was readily available at the local pharmacy. Instead I had gone through my parents' medicine cabinet and found glycerin-containing ear drops.

    A resident who lived near the park had seen two figures running away from the smoke, and for me that was enough to extinguish any further explosive fantasies. I wish I could say the same for another friend who had heard me brag about my adventure. Using acids from his father's basement laboratory (he was a denturologist) he followed my recipe. One day after school, before hopping the fence as part of our usual shortcut to head home, he pulled a U-turn and took a mixture out of his bag. Much screaming on my part did not dissuade him from placing it under the natural gas tanks behind the school building.

    It was one of those crazy moments where details cannot be remembered accurately. I wanted to pull him away? I didn't? We heard some fizzing? We ran. The most important fact: the school and we were salvaged by his incompetence.

    Of course, if he had really made nitro, the tragedy would probably have occurred earlier. It could have blown up in his backpack on his way to school or in the middle of a crowded classroom.

    I ran into my friend about eight years later on a plane to Vancouver. Coincidentally he was seated directly in front of me. He had recovered from a motorcycle accident that had placed him in a coma. It was one of those experiences that helped flush the anger out of his youth. We never talked about nitroglycerin. He had majored in computer science and eventually became a software designer for a large American company.


    Ha ha ha - didn't we all do this. This brings back fond memories. One just cannot be careful enough. I used ice cold acids, mixed them first, cooled them down again, below zero C. Only a few cold drops of glycerine, really slow. All of a sudden bubbles, closed the freezer, jumped out of the room. That freezer was history in a couple of seconds. But I am a slow learner and thought, well if glycerine is bad, maybe cellulose is still fun. Now I know - none of this shit is fun.
    This is one of the reasons that I am not too worried about putting out recipes like I did here on the internet. Most who will try such in order to do harm kill themselves along the way - good riddance. Those clever enough to not kill themselves know how to do it also without the internet.
    When I was a kid you could buy chemicals for chemistry sets at the local hobby shop. One of the chemicals you could buy was potassium nitrate which is, of course, the main ingredient in gun powder. I mixed some up once and and put it in an aluminum tube that my dad had. One end of the tube was sealed with the top of an Elmer's glue bottle because it was tapered and was perfect for holding the fuse in place and it fit the tube. In the other end I packed in some cotton and put a cork in it for good measure. I lit the fuse and turned around but apparently the fuse was a little too short and I hadn't gotten very far before it blew. It basically acted like a mini cannon and made a loud bang. It was so loud that my dad came running from the front yard to the back yard, where I was, and started yelling at me for doing something that stupid.

    The Stand-Up Physicist
    Model rocketry was my vice. I didn't care about the aerodynamics. All that mattered was the engine. None of my personal designs flew straight, although it is a bit of a misnomer to call a Hot Wheels car duct taped to a C engine a rocket design.
    As kids we loved to make beer can cannons that fired tennis balls.  In those days the beer cans' diameter perfectly accommodated the width of the tennis ball, so you could have the necessary buildup of pressure. What was amazing is that gas station attendants actually sold gasoline to a bunch of 9 year-olds. I guess that's what you get when you grow up in a ghetto neighborhood!
    I confess my year at school was not really into chemistry - we had our own ways of trying to kill ourselves involving "television tubes" and assorted high voltages. However a few years earlier my brother's year would take some beating. It all started when the chemistry teacher strolled round the lab to see how the practical was getting on and discovered that the time had not been wasted after all because the school's chemical inventory had just been enriched with several hundred grams of TNT. Then there was the lad who was summoned home because his bedroom windows had blown out. The violet fumes provided a clue as to what that was about.  And another whose pocket exploded on the 'bus, believed to be due to mercury fulminate - no doubt intended to be introduced to the TNT.. . And the cannons! Just as laser power is sometimes measured in "gillettes", the best measure of these brutes was undoubtedly "fences". Two inch diameter round rocks became commodity items. A reaction between potassium chlorate and sulphur got scaled up from the text book recommendation by none other than the chemistry teacher himself and the resultant explosion brought staff from all over the site - more to admire than to assist, I suspect. Needless to say, one of that generation returned after graduating to teach the next lot of thugs, which included myself. Our school had a very smelly unpleasant drain that was always blocked and which curious youth were forbidden from poking, which made it all the more interesting. The returning madman saw it as a challenge. Suffice it to say that the drain never impeded the flow of either liquids or solids again. Unfortunately the crater and hole in the wall required the assistence of a builder to rectify at considerable expense and our new chemistry teacher was never to be seen again.
    Quentin Rowe
    Ahh, explosives!  - I don't understand why they don't sell more of these at the 'Big Boys Toys' sales expos that come around every year. Beats exotic boats and fast cars any day...

    For me and my friends, it was bolt-bombs made from match heads, acetylene/oxygen balloon bombs, and a particularly easy one, sodium chlorate&icing sugar. Very dangerous. Had many close calls but avoided major injuries.

    These days, YouTube scratches any itch I may develop... happy to let others take the risk now!
    ...acetylene/oxygen balloon bombs..
    This reminds me of a trick given to me by my high school chemistry teacher from something he did in his youth. It involved generating acetylene from calcium carbide and water. But it involved a big metal drum rather than balloons. The heat from exploding acetylene balloons is a little too intense for my tastes!
    What are safety glasses?
    That neutralisation reminds me of the time I tried mixing a strong acid - nitric, of course - with a weak base, sodium sulphite. Yes, I know that now.
    Still, even that can't compare with what happened when my brother innocently tried silvering a mirror - and left the complexed silver solution standing overnight.

    I'm feeling quite nostalgic now.

    Glad I made you nostalgic!
    What are safety glasses?

    Didn't realize that the British used a different term---protective eye wear?
    For me it was sodium nitrate and sulphur, bought by the kilo many times over at a small neighborhood pharmacy. Plus charcoal ground with mortar and pestle. My "lab" was orignally in my bedroom on some shipping crates. It was quickly moved outside to a storage room by our pool which had a supply of hydrochloric acid and chlorine. Oh Joy!
    I had a copy of my brother's high school chemistry text book. 
    I would try to replicate some of its forumlae. 
    I loved the Periodic Table. 
    At a supply store, I could buy glass tubing, pure mercury, corks and flasks. Fun stuff!
    I must have done the electrolysis of water a hundred times.
    This was all before girls, of course. They be la bomba.
    This was all before girls, of course. They be la bomba.

    :) That brings back good memories of a girl that struck me like lightning when I came out of an electricity and magnetism lab! It's too bad attenuation eventually comes into play.
    A straw poll amongst colleagues revealed that fellow-Brits do indeed call them safety glasses... it was the technology itself that I was unfamiliar with. A protective shield in front of the eyes? Hmm, what a clever idea! Back in my day, you learned to duck when something was about to explode or squirt a jet of boiling acid at you. Brown fumes, for example, are a good sign: the Malice is wasting its energy just shaking a fist at you. When nothing whatsoever seems to be happening, that's the time to leap over the benches and run for the door. Like when I poured conc HCl onto KOH granules [don't try this at home, kids]...  there was a delay of several seconds while it seemed safe and while the other bit of my brain thought "Now that probably wasn't a good idea, Derek." Then there was a sort of gurgling crackling noise for 400ms before the glorious fountain appeared. I did not investigate. I assume conc HCl let the way, followed by KCl solution and bringing up the rear, superheated KOH propelling the lot, though it's possible its expansion caused it to overtake or pass through the others. It occured to me as I ran that it might make a good model of cosmic inflation. :)