This week’s explosion is brought to you by the chemical Nitroglycerin (abbreviated NG). It is dangerous and ridiculously explosive. How explosive you ask? Well, imagine a substance that explodes if you just so happen to bump it. So explosive that the first company to manufacture NG exploded… twice! (That would be the facilities of Alfred Nobel & Company… yes this is the same guy who started the Nobel Prizes). So explosive that California banned the transportation of the substance in 1866 after a crate of it destroyed a Wells Fargo building in San Francisco. So explosive, that they use it as heart medication. Wait what?! [sound of record scratching]

More on that later. Let’s look at some boom-making properties in action:


NG is so explosive because it’s different from the other two substances we looked at previously (alkali metals and acetylene gas). Most people are aware that flames need oxygen to continue to burn. The classic experiment is to put a glass jar over a burning candle. After a few minutes the oxygen in the jar is used up and the flame goes out. The previous two substances also need to react with oxygen to burn and explode. NG however, does not. Why? Because it doesn’t need to react with oxygen because it doesn’t burn (that’s so gauche). Instead it simply breaks apart very rapidly, and releases a great deal of energy. Here is the structure:

Boomtown molecule.

Those oxygen-nitrogen+ bonds are extremely weak. A slight bump, knock, or hit will be enough to break those bonds, rearrange the atoms in to much more stable molecule (like CO2, O2, and H2O) and release lots of energy in the form of heat and pressure. This pressure blast from the first molecule exploding is enough to cause the neighboring molecules to explode as well, creating a shock wave that travels through the entire liquid at 30 times the speed of sound detonating molecules as it goes. That’s why even when the camera is slowed down a ridiculous amount, the detonation is nearly instantaneous.  That’s also why there’s no need for oxygen in this reaction.

Anyways, You Mentioned Heart Medicine?

One would think such an extremely explosive material ingested into your body really would make your heart go boom boom boom (a-haha) – so why is NG perscribed as heart medicine? The answer lies in the purity of the NG. 100% pure NG as a liquid is what is being detonated in the video above. However, if you dilute the NG with some other non-explosive molecule, or even combine it with some other material to make it a solid, the NG molecules are further apart. Now, if only one NG molecule explodes, there are no other NG molecules nearby to continue the chain reaction, thus preventing the detonation!

The other important factor in the lack-of-detonation-upon-ingestion property of NG is that it is rapidly converted to nitric oxide in the body (the chemical formula is simply NO). NO naturally dilates the blood vessels in the body, increasing blood and oxygen flow to the heart! Wow, I am feeling healthier already just thinking about this!

Big deal.

Ok fine. Here’s something not to sneeze at.

I’m serious – don’t sneeze at nitrogen triiodide. It will probably sneeze right back at you. Here it is detonating literally at the touch of a feather.

Have a pleasant weekend! Don’t forget to set your clocks back on Saturday night!

– PV


4 responses »

  1. iampotassium says:

    We totally made an explosive in lab in inorganic chemistry class but I can’t remember what it was, except for the fact that we did just have to touch it with something light (like a feather) to make it explode! Fun times!
    I’ll be sure not to sneeze at any nitrogen triiodide if I see any… 🙂

  2. Academy! says:

    Way to go, PV! I might become a regular at the electron cafe.


  3. […] in a cylinder of clay. I put stabilized in quotes because nitroglycerin is still extremely shock sensitive as we saw in a previous week. If you’ve watched the first season of LOST then you know what […]

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