LANL’s New explosive could render toxic TNT obsolete

Explosives chemist David Chavez pours an example of melt-castable explosive into a copper mold at Los...
Explosives chemist David Chávez pours an example of melt-castable explosive into a copper mold at Los Alamos National Laboratory’s Technical Area 9 (Credit: LANL)

It looks as if the days of the venerable explosive trinitrotoluene (TNT) are numbered as researchers at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) and the US Army Research Laboratory in Aberdeen, Maryland develop a new explosive that has the power of TNT, yet is safer and more environmentally friendly.

Invented by the German chemist Julius Wilbrand in 1863, TNT was originally created as a textile dye, but in 1891 Carl Häussermann discovered its explosive properties. Today, it’s one of the best known and most widely used explosives for both military and civilian applications. This because TNT is not only a powerful explosive, it can also be melted and poured into molds.

But the key selling factor for TNT is that it’s very safe to handle. In fact, Britain’s 1875 Explosives Act didn’t even class TNT as an explosive in terms of storage and handling. This is because TNT is very hard to detonate, requiring a detonator and a pre-explosive charge called a “gain” to set it off with a strong enough shock wave. By itself, you can hit TNT with a hammer, saw it in half, or burn it in a campfire – though we definitely wouldn’t recommend such experiments.

Unfortunately, TNT is also highly toxic, with prolonged exposure affecting the blood, liver, and spleen. It’s also a possible human carcinogen and is a very dangerous soil and water pollutant. Not surprisingly, finding a safer, yet as effective, substitute that melts like TNT has its attractions.

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