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.