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Monday, November 14, 2011

Forensics Q&A: Not All Explosives Are Created Equal

By Kristy Lahoda | @KristyLahoda

Disclaimer: The information provided in this post should not be used for malicious intent unless it is in the form of crime writing. The author is an explosives expert, not a crime scene expert. While every attempt was made to ensure the accuracy of this information, for security purposes, some details may have been withheld.

QUESTION: I am writing a thriller and my antagonist is planning to make a pipe bomb.  Does it matter what type of explosives she uses?  For example, could something like TNT be used as an explosive in the pipe?

ANSWER: It does matter as not all explosives are created equal.  TNT is not an explosive typically used in a pipe bomb—it does not need to be contained to cause mass destruction.  Explosives are generally grouped into two categories: low explosives (LEs) and high explosives (HEs).  These are differentiated based on the speed of explosion.  LEs deflagrate, HEs detonate.

High Explosives (HEs)

Detonation occurs when the reaction front propagates (i.e the reaction proceeds) through the explosive at a speed greater than the speed of sound,  Detonation occurs at velocities above 3,300 ft/sec (2,250 mph).  For detonation to occur, the assistance of a primary explosive is required.  To provide sufficient energy for the high explosive to begin its energetic decomposition (i.e. the breakdown into chemical components as a result of the energy of the reaction), only small amounts of the primary explosive are needed because they are reactive to shock, friction, or heat.  Detonation results in a rapid release of energy and an accompanying shock wave.

Types of HEs

High explosives are categorized as primary or secondary based on ease of initiation.  When comparing the two, primary explosives are more sensitive to heat, friction, and shock and have less energy, and therefore less power, than secondary explosives.  Secondary explosives are less sensitive to heat, friction, and shock and are more powerful.  Primary explosives are used in detonators and initiation systems.  They can be used to ignite secondary explosives.  Secondary explosives are used in large quantities relative to the primary explosive and are typically used as the main charge.

Primary Explosives

Two common initiating explosives include lead azide and lead styphnate.  Lead azide is very sensitive to initiation by friction, heat, or shock.  The velocity of detonation for lead azide is around 17,500 feet per second.  That’s just over 11,900 miles per hour!  Lead styphnate is sensitive to static electricity and fire, but is less sensitive than lead azide to friction and shock.  Its velocity of detonation is similar to that of lead azide.

Secondary Explosives

Trinitrotoluene (TNT) is one of the most universally known HEs.  Cyclotrimethylene trinitramine (RDX) and pentaerythritol tetranitrate (PETN) are two favorites of terrorists.  In fact, PETN was the explosive that Richard Reid, aka The Shoe Bomber, had concealed in his shoe in an attempt to blow up American Airlines Flight 63.  Another example of a high explosive is ammonium nitrate-fuel oil (ANFO, used by Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols in the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995.

Low Explosives (LEs)

Low explosives are propellants that burn in open air, but deflagrate (burn rapidly) when initiated in confinement.  LEs might not sound that dangerous since they burn, but they can be extremely perilous when used improperly.  In fact, they can even “act” as high explosives upon deflagration given the proper conditions when initiated, such as containment.  Simply stated, deflagration = explosion when confined.  When the LE deflagrates, the burn is faster than in open air.  However, it does not burn as rapidly as detonation occurs.  The reaction front propagates through the low explosive at a velocity less than the speed of sound.  As a result, low explosive deflagration reactions occur at a lower reaction front pressure, velocity, and temperature than HEs.  

Types of LEs

There has been a strong emphasis in counterterrorism literature on high explosives analysis, but the majority of incidents in the US have been due to LEs such as black powder, smokeless powder, improvised explosives, and fireworks. These are the types of explosives that are used in pipe bombs.

In summary, low explosives require containment to deflagrate.  High explosives require primary explosives to initiate detonation of secondary explosives, but are destructive without containment.  After an explosion, there are a number of law enforcement activities that are launched at the crime scene and crime lab including an investigation, a crime scene search, evidence collection, sample preparation, and forensic analysis on the decomposition products of the explosives—called post-blast residue analysis.  The wealth of forensic information obtained post-blast is amazing and should give pause to anyone considering bomb construction.  

For more information on these topics, stay tuned for the installments in the upcoming months of Forensics Q&A.

Kristy Lahoda, Ph.D., is an explosives analyst contractor in a crime lab as well as a science content editor for a major educational publishing company.  She writes Christian forensic suspense and discusses forensics on her blog called Explosive Faith.  You can follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

If you have a forensics question for Dr. Lahoda that you'd like to see answered on the QueryTracker Blog, send your question via Carolyn Kaufman using the email link under Contact Us in the right-hand column of the main QTB page.

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