Project Title:
TATP-A legitimate security threat?

Group No.:


Group Name:


News URL:


Bryan Bender and Gareth Cook

News Paper:

The Boston Globe

Area Key Word:

TATP, Homeland Security, Terrorism

Chemistry Key Word:

triacetone triperoxide, entropic explosion, disintigration

Editorial Comment:

TATP is a preferred explosive agent with terrorist groups due to its relative ease to make, and the uniqueness of its destructive power. Until recently, it was believed that TATP was similar to other explosives in that it utilized oxidation reactions to create N2 gas and a created a large amount of energy due to combustion.

However, it has been recently discovered TATP is different, beginning with the fact that it has no nitrogen containing groups, making it unlikely that it performs the typical oxidation and combustion reactions that explosives undergo. Molecules will perform whatever reaction requires the least amount energy. In the case of TATP, this is the disintegration of the molecule. 1 solid molecule of TATP disintegrating releases 4 molecules of gas via the shedding of TATP acetone groups, releasing oxygen and ozone gases. This reaction causes an enormous release of energy, but not energy in the form of heat - making it so that TATP can explode without a single flame.

TATP can be synthesized using relatively common household chemicals such as hydrogen peroxide(H2O2), acetone (C3H6O), and sulfuric acid (H2SO4). It also requires cold temperatures for the reactions to take place, posing less risks than its explosive counterparts, which require extremely high temperatures to be manufactured.

So why is TATP not an extremely common homeland security problem? Due to the high level of instability in the molecule (due to the weak O-O bonds present), it poses a direct risk to the person wanting to use the explosive, as it is very likely that TATP will detonate prior to the desired time. It also does not require a spark or any form of heat to detonate, and a simple amount of friction is sufficient to cause a very powerful reaction.

Faina Dubnikova et. all J. Am. Chem. Soc., 127 (4), 1146 -1159,2005.

Question 1:

How powerful is TATP? (ICR)

Answer 1:

As compared to 2,4,6-trinitrotoluene (TNT), TATP produces approximately 80% of the outward force that TNT produces using the same amount of explosive.

Question 2:

Describe the differences between the reaction that causes TATP to explode and typical explosion reactions. (SCL)

Answer 2:

Typical explosives contain nitro groups (NO2) attached to a hydrocarbon chain. In an explosion,
the oxygen is release allowing the combustion of the hydrocarbon which creates the explosive energy. The explosive energy in TATP however, is the result of an entropy explosion in which the weak O-O bonds dissociate causing the release of 4 gas molecules and a chain reaction of other TATP molecules dissociating.

Question 3:

What other characteristics make TATP unique as compared to other explosives? (SCL)

Answer 3:

Typical explosives generally require heating to produce the explosive. TATP can be produced at room temperature and actually must be kept cool. Typical explosives require some sort of detonation to catalyze the reaction. TATP does not require a detonation device due to its instability and an explosion can occur from minimal friction, heat or pressure. TATP is unique structurally as it has no nitro groups.

Question 4:

Why is the TATP molecule so unstable? (FAR)

Answer 4:

TATP is unstable due to the weak O-O bonds. As oxygen is a highly electronegative atom, it is not stable being bonded to another electronegative oxygen atom and does not want to equally share the electrons. This is why any small amount of energy added to the system in the form of friction, pressure or heat will cause the bond to dissociate initiating the reaction.

Question 5:

Should TATP be considered a significant threat in relation to airport security and airline terrorism?(PSP)

Answer 5:

There are several characteristics of TATP that make it highly attractive to terrorists and several that are prohibitive of using TATP as a weapon of terrorism on an airplane.

Attractive qualities include the fact that TATP is easy to make from readily available household chemicals. TATP is also quickly made in less than two days. Because TATP contains no nitro groups, does not require a detonation devise, and is in the form of a white powder, getting it through airport security as a carry-on item would not be difficult. As a checked item, it would be easier to get through security as well as it would not be detected by the x-ray machine or other security procedures. The terrorist could rely on the cabin pressure or friction to initiate the reaction once on board the plane.

Factors that make TATP a less attractive choice to a terrorist primarily stem from its instability. TATP cannot be made far in advance of its use due to the fact that it cannot be easily stored, and therefore, would have to be made right before it is to be used. As TATP must be kept cool during its preparation, this would prohibit a terrorist from trying to produce it on the plane. In addition, as minimal friction or pressure could cause it to explode, packing TATP in a suitcase or in carry-on luggage is highly risky.

It would seem reasonable to believe that the uncertainty and instability of the explosive might prohibit its use in terrorism, however,it is believe that TATP has been used in several terrorist attacks around the world and therefore, is obviously not considered too great a gamble for some terrorists. As airports are not currently equipped to deal with the threat of TATP, it is up to airport security to perform the cost-benefit analysis on tightening up security in this area.

©2004 Dr. Rainer Glaser's group