Saturday, October 10, 2009

Bad Idea

Emptywheel has been following those who are following the buyers of acetone and hydrogen peroxide. That's nail polish remover and hair bleach to the patrons of beauty salons. Mixing concentrated acetone and hydrogen peroxide will give TATP, the dreaded explosive of the so-called liquid variety beloved of the TSA and panicky officials everywhere.

Back in the summer of 2006, when TATP first came to the attention of the general public and draconian measures were imposed on lipsticks at airports, I couldn't figure out what the deal was on "liquid explosives" until I did some googling. I'll let you read about how I figured that out here.

TATP is not a liquid explosive. It is a solid, but it can be made from two liquids, acetone and hydrogen peroxide. The hydrogen peroxide you buy in the stores to deal with canker sores and the like is 3% peroxide, 97% water. Peroxide for bleaching hair is 30%.

In order to make TATP, you have to concentrate the peroxide by boiling. This is a very dangerous operation. Concentrated peroxide will make cloth, plastics, skin, and other carbon-based compounds catch fire. I've read some reports of boiling the acetone too. I'm not sure what's in nail polish remover, but chances are it's diluted with water too. In that case, boiling will leave the higher-boiling water unless you're doing a distillation. Result: no TATP.

The worst idea of all is actually to make the TATP, which is a solid, not a liquid. The synthesis says you've got to filter and dry the solid in order for it to become explosive. The difficulty with this is that it's a very sensitive explosive and filtering and drying just might set it off, as Mr. Kuzelka appears to have discovered. It also decomposes slowly, so if you don't blow your hand off making it, it may well not work when you get around to using it.

So, as I said earlier, it's hardly likely that my lipstick will become explosive aboard an airplane, but don't tell the TSA that. And there is an awful lot of acetone and hydrogen peroxide around.

And, er, any kind of nut can make this stuff, not just the dreaded dark-skinned terrorists of Fox stereotype.

But I wouldn't, and I'm a chemist. Much too dangerous. The government, by making it seem like it's really easy to make these "liquid explosives," is leading gullible people like Mr. Kuzelka into self-harming practices.

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