New form of destructive terrorist material unlikely, chemists report (w/Video)

Mar 26, 2009
Detonation of 0.5 grams of triacetone triperoxide (TATP) — a trivial sample size compared to quantities in modern-day terrorist materials — emits a shock wave that destroys a nearby water balloon. At the 237th ACS National Meeting, chemists are reporting that a new, more powerful explosive related to TATP is unlikely. Credit: Gerard Harbison, Ph.D.

(PhysOrg.com) -- Concerns that terrorists could produce a new and particularly dangerous form of the explosive responsible for airport security screening of passengers’ shoes and restrictions on liquids in carryon baggage are unfounded, scientists reported today.

Speaking here at the 237th National Meeting of the American Chemical Society, Gerard Harbison, Ph.D., and colleagues described using computer simulations to analyze a variety of potential peroxide-based explosives in the same chemical class as triacetone triperoxide (TATP). That powerful, easy-to-make explosive was used by the “shoe bomber,” Richard Reid, in his failed attempt to blow up a transatlantic airline flight in 2001. TATP has also been used by suicide bombers in the Palestinian Intifada.

“Our analysis indicates that potentially new and destructive terrorist materials, which would tax our detection capabilities, may be too unstable for a practical synthesis,” said Harbison, a chemist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. “We consider it unlikely that any of the previous syntheses were actually successful, and the Internet myths about TeATeP are nothing more than that. So the good news is basically this is something we don’t have to worry about.”

This video is not supported by your browser at this time.
Video of the TATP explosion narrated by Harbison.

The group investigated 20 of various compounds and found that all substances larger than TATP are likely too sensitive to be used as weapons. “The energies we’re seeing in the analysis are extreme enough,” Harbison said, adding that a review of previous TeATeP synthesis reports raised many questions. “If you look at the actual literature on people who claim to have made TeATeP, it’s very ambiguous. We think probably what happened when people thought they were making TeATeP was that they were actually making TATP.”

This synthesis error is common and often fatal, Harbison said. When trying to make TATP, a less stable relative, diacetone diperoxide, often is created. “The nice thing about doing this on the computer is first it’s safe, and our results are so close to what’s been experimentally measured that we have a great deal of confidence with what we’re doing,” Harbison said. “We’re really at the stage where we can evaluate threats — potential molecules that might be dangerous — and we can really make some sort of judgment about whether those molecules are going to present a hazard in the future. We can test things with computers at a level of reliability that’s comparable to personally doing the synthesis and evaluating material yourself.”

There’s a lot of research that deals with known threats, Harbison said. But his groups’ research focuses on the idea that emerging threats will always exist. “Presumably you’d like to anticipate the threats before they come along. We’re now pushing it a little further and discussing potential threats.

“Using computational chemistry, we can narrow down the domain of potential hazards, things that aren’t going to be on the horizon. I think we now know so much more about not just what works for improvised-explosive-device detection but also what doesn’t work, and we don’t have to try it out (experimentally). We did five years ago.”

Provided by American Chemical Society (news : web)

Explore further: Celebrating 100 years of crystallography

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Sniffing out a broad-spectrum of airborne threats in seconds

Jun 09, 2008

Scientists in California are reporting successful laboratory and field tests of a new device that can sniff out the faintest traces of a wide range of chemical, biological, nuclear, and explosive threats - and illicit drugs ...

H. peroxide sensor could aid security

Aug 23, 2006

A new family of molecules used to detect hydrogen peroxide and other reactive chemicals in living cells could be a useful addition to anti-terrorist arsenals, says the University of California, Berkeley, chemist who developed ...

Recommended for you

Ice cream goes Southern, okra extracts may increase shelf-life

57 minutes ago

While okra has been widely used as a vegetable for soups and stews, a new study in the Journal of Food Science, published by the Institute of Food Technologists (IFT), shows how okra extracts can be used as a stabilizer in ice ...

The fluorescent fingerprint of plastics

6 hours ago

LMU researchers have developed a new process which will greatly simplify the process of sorting plastics in recycling plants. The method enables automated identification of polymers, facilitating rapid separation ...

Water and sunlight the formula for sustainable fuel

10 hours ago

An Australian National University (ANU) team has successfully replicated one of the crucial steps in photosynthesis, opening the way for biological systems powered by sunlight which could manufacture hydrogen ...

Rice chemist wins 'Nobel Prize of Cyprus'

10 hours ago

Rice University organic chemist K.C. Nicolaou has earned three prestigious international honors, including the Nemitsas Prize, the highest honor a Cypriot scientist can receive and one of the most prestigious ...

Researchers create engineered energy absorbing material

12 hours ago

(Phys.org) —Materials like solid gels and porous foams are used for padding and cushioning, but each has its own advantages and limitations. Gels are effective as padding but are relatively heavy; gel performance ...

User comments : 0