Not every explosion originates from a bomb: those classified under the accidental type can be natural, physical, electric, and chemical in origin. They occur when all the favourable conditions coincide, and sometimes as a consequence of human ‘negligence’.
Nevertheless, many explosions are intentional. In fact, the industrial revolution would not have happened without our ability to overcome the massive barriers that separate us from essential natural resources. The first man made explosive mixture could have been inspired by the rapid combustion of potassium nitrate, charcoal and sulphur. This mixture is what we call gunpowder, and is how we marked history by a disturbing power to destroy. Gunpowder deflagrates upon ignition under ‘normal pressure conditions’, resulting in a mild explosion otherwise described as a very rapid combustion. Such explosives serve us today a number of other purposes such as avoiding natural disasters by blowing up potential avalanches, or even the creation of new spaces by demolishing buildings. I remember snapping this picture from my neighbourhood few minutes after last year’s demolition of Leicester’s city council’s offices, and would you excuse the randomness but I wanted to share it somewhere:
Unfortunately, progress is almost never benign, and all sorts of unwanted consequences could bulge out from it. Ammonium Nitrate, a widely used fertiliser, was only discovered to be highly explosive after the largest non-nuclear accidental explosion that shook up the United States. High explosives detonate under ‘normal pressure conditions’; resulting in a shock wave that travels faster than the speed of sound and that fragments almost everything that is on its way. Last August in China, seventy years later, we still could not prevent a similar industrial incident that involved the same chemical.
Some of us have instead developed ways to increase the explosives’ potency, and facilitated their use amongst fighting governments, military organisations, as well as the general population.
Weren’t we paving dangerous roads by spreading more knowledge about explosives such as the plastic or peroxide ones?
I will not delve into all bomb attacks that occur regularly against human beings; but it might be helpful to look at these striking figures: Wikipedia lists 405 terrorist attacks in 2015, from which 204 involved some sort of an Improvised Explosive Device (IED). Today, IEDs can be delivered in a mind-boggling number of ways. Small quantities are easily concealable and particularly difficult to detect. However, they still can be extremely powerful. Everything we can imagine today can hide a bomb. As a matter of fact, the ‘explosion of things’ is a haunting concept that we fear is becoming reality. A failed terror plot on board of the Northwest Airlines flight 253 has revealed an underpants device that was designed to kill 300 passengers and crew members above the city of Detroit. Six years later the group ISIS claimed to have downed Russian Metrojet flight 9268 above Egypt using a soda can.
It has been reported that the underwear contained Pentaerythritol tetranitrate (PETN) and another chemical called Triacetone Triphosphate (TATP), which also filled the suicide vests of last November’s Paris attackers. A TATP bomb is very easily prepared at home and, because of its powdery consistency, can be contained in all sorts of items. However, TATP’s extreme instability makes it a nightmare to everyone- including to the attackers themselves.
Explosive devices have killed, incapacitated and traumatised many of us whilst also destroying our shelters and belongings. Together with my fellow researcher Alex, we are working on possible improvements in the identification of bomb makers after the explosion has happened. Alex’s work focuses on the recovery of fingerprints while mine focuses on DNA.
The controlled production of artificially degraded samples in the lab is an essential move forward in understanding the specific damages that are brought by a chosen environmental factor. However, we believe we can make a stronger impact on ‘real’ life by working with ‘real’ samples as well. I would like to express my full gratitude to the Investigations Divisions and Bomb Squad of the Larimer County Sheriff and the Loveland Police Department, especially Sergeant Brian Wangler, Sergeant Ryan Ertman and the rest of their highly skilled and scientifically curious team. Together we have performed outdoor experiments by setting off pipe bombs that contained our samples of interest and then by adequately collecting the remains once the scene was safe to explore. As is possibly the case with other experiments involving explosions in the USA, we have also benefited from the presence and crucial advice of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives: the ATF.
I will let you guys imagine how fascinated I was, to be there and to be doing this: