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Airplanes and Chemicals

I’ve already been asked about today’s news of a plot to bring chemical explosives on to commercial flights in Britain. Naturally, like most other chemists, I have opinions and speculations about how people might do this, but I’m going to keep them to myself. I’ve no desire to be used as reference material for such things, unlikely though that might be. If there are later disclosures (unlikely) about the compounds and methods used, I may comment on them then, but I’m not going to add to the available information about homemade explosives for terrorism.
And in the spirit of honi soit qui mal y pense, it is my sincere wish that anyone who investigates such things blow themselves up very early in their R&D program.

21 comments on “Airplanes and Chemicals”

  1. fishbane says:

    Here’s one disclosure about what (may) have been involved.

  2. fishbane says:

    Here’s one disclosure about what (may) have been involved.

  3. Ian Ameline says:

    Unfortunately a simple google search on “liquid explosives” will turn up information on a variety of clear, colorless (but certainly not odourless!) liquid high explosives.

  4. Mike says:
    “A senior congressional source said it is believed the plotters planned to mix a British sports drink with a gel-like substance to make a potent explosive…”
    That’s hilarious!

  5. Novice Chemist says:

    It appears that the explosive in question is TATP, according to I suggest (not entirely in jest) that during passenger screening, liquid/gels in question be subjected to either heat or shock.
    I can hear it now: “Ma’am, please hold your bottle of water to your head and shake — no, harder!”

  6. Derek Lowe says:

    Novice, that was one of my first thoughts, and probably that of many chemists. Lively stuff, though. My wish for its basement suppliers has a reasonable chance of coming true.

  7. Jal-Frezi says:

    The BBC news here last night had a garden shed boffin blowing stuff up in his back yard.

  8. SP says:

    Some of the stories are pretty funny. I liked the one that said you could find sulfuric acid in drain cleaner. I’d like to see the plumbing in that reporter’s house.
    I believe the TATP claim was that the baddies were going to sneak the innocuous components (nail polish remover [acetone], H2O2, and lemon juice or some other acid) onto a plane and assemble them in the bathroom. I don’t know what reaction conditions are required or if that would work with such impure components (store bought H2O2 is only 3%)- I guess they weren’t planning on a refluxing reaction? Anyway, the whole ban on liquids is still ridiculous because the reports also said they were going to be smuggled in via false bottom bottles- so making people taste their drinks to prove they’re not poison still isn’t going to work, it’s just going to inconvenience everyone else for the next decade. (Just like how everyone still has to take their shoes off four years after someone tried that trick- eventually we’ll all be sedated and strapped naked into our seats for all flights.)

  9. Derek Lowe says:

    SP, a lot of the news coverage on the chemical aspects is pretty bad, true – not that that’s necessarily a bad thing in this case. But it’s actually correct that some drain cleaners are little more than conc. sulfuric acid. There aren’t as many of them as there used to be, but some of the “pro” products are just that.

  10. Harry says:

    Derek is exactly right about drain cleaners- and a number of people have been hurt by pouring Sulfuric acid-based drain cleaners into drains that have already been (unsuccessfully) treated with a drain cleaner based on Caustic Soda (or inverse addition, for that matter). The resulting steam explosions can be spectacular.

  11. Dana H. says:

    Completely off-topic, but SP’s closing remark reminds me of an idea I had soon after 9/11: A new airline named “Naked Air” that would require all passengers to fly naked. The two benefits would be: (1) it limits the places to hide weapons and (2) Islam forbids public nudity, so it greatly reduces the chances of a Muslim terrorist boarding the flight.

  12. SP says:

    You’re too late, Dana, there’s already a travel agency for people who want to do that ( I believe some of their charters are actually called “Naked Air” (although if you google that, watch out for the photo albums that come up.)
    I was always taught that drain cleaners should be basic because acid will eat through some pipes (lead or zinc, not copper or PVC) and the acid will then be in your walls. I guess if you’re sure about what kind of pipes you have it’s ok.

  13. SP says:

    Answering my own question from above, the NYT had an article with some information:
    3% hydrogen peroxide available in drug stores won’t do anything with acetone. 30%, what you can buy from chemical supply places, won’t make an explosive but will make a very hot burning liquid. To make an explosion, you need 70%, which I’ve never seen or worked with- I think you need to be somewhere like JPL to find that kind of stuff. So this talk about being able to make a bomb from things in your bathroom (including an NYT article from the day before that contradicts this one) is somewhat overblown, unless your bathroom is also a rocket propulsion lab. Of course, that’s only for this particular explosive.

  14. engineer guy says:

    You’re correct, but I recall a non-scientific article that discussed a fellow who routinely increases the concentration of hydrogen peroxide to well over 70%…as part of his hobby.
    And he sells the apparatus he developed to do this. *shivers*

  15. estaff says:

    If you look up TATP on wilkepedia they reference a JACS article back in ’59 that describes how to make it, of course they weren’t trying to make it as an explosive. The JACS authors do add the caveat that it is highly explosive. They use 50% peroxide and it must be cooled below 10 c

  16. Nigel says:

    TATP is thought to have been used in the London Tube bombings last year.
    Clearly a suicide bomber isn’t going to be too concerned about the health & safety aspects of its production.

  17. tom bartlett says:

    Would that we had better mental health screening.
    At least the IRA were mentally fit enough not to blow THEMSELVES up.

  18. Steve says:

    The IRA, unlike the Islamic fanatics, didn’t want hypothetical virgins in the theoretical hereafter. The more practical Irish lads wanted rosy-cheeked lasses who knew what they were doing, preferably available that very evening immediately following the event.

  19. Steve says:

    This link is a better-than-average humorous commentary for a mainstream audience:

  20. azygos says:

    I listened to a terrorism “expert” on the radio after this incident explain step by step how to build a bomb, what chemicals to use, and how to trigger them. All things I know how to do but really don’t think that it was a good idea to teach others how to do it.

  21. Steve says:

    Many years ago Hollywood adopted dummy 555-prefix phone numbers for films and TV shows. Legions of idiots used to ring up the numbers mentioned, some of which corresponded to those of real phone subscribers, who in turn complained to Ma Bell.
    I remember wondering just how bored or pathetic someone must be to find calling pre-555 numbers a worthwhile pastime, especially since long distance calls were still quite expensive then.
    The world had changed and while Hollywood was becoming aware of it, they weren’t consistently on the ball.
    When I was 11 or 12, there was a crime series called ‘Checkmate’ (1960-62). The plot of one episode hinged on threatened detonation of some homemade nitroglycerin. During the show, the method for preparing it was described and shown in some detail.
    Although I was still in elementary school, I had a number of organic books around the house. It surprised me that with the exception of the rather important thorough neutralization steps — workups are far too tedious for prime time television! — the nitration seemed eerily accurate. (I had nitrated some naphthalene around that time in my home lab, so I was passingly familiar with the general process.)
    Even then I thought it was creepy that a TV show would provide a cookbook recipe of this kind to a general audience, especially since back then it wasn’t difficult to obtain the ingredients. (Heck, as a pre-teen I had them in the basement, although I was singularly un-tempted to give it a try, which probably is a key reason why I am here today writing this, and my parents still live in the same yet-intact house.)
    While I am first in line to defend freedom of speech and would balk at anyone trying to muzzle a scientist, I think as scientists we all have a personal and professional responsibility not to place metaphorical loaded guns into the hands of children, much less of certifiably crazy adults. Certainly the entertainment industry does, and did even then. (Of course the consequent utter lack of verisimilitude is one reason why I never enjoyed McGyver.)

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