An Orientation to Explosive Safety

Betty W. Harris Los Alamos National Laboratory, P.O. Box 1663, Los Alamos, NM 87545 Explosives are chemical or physical systems capable of extremelv raoid exothermic reactions. which are eenerallv accompahiedby high pressures a t the ;eaction zone, products, and a vast amount of heat and light. Such systems can do a tremendous amount of work in very short time. For this reason, explosives are used for domestic, commercial, and military p&poses. Explosives also are used to clear forest areas, to open canals, to build dams, to blast rock in construction projects, to drill for oil, to mine ore, and for submarine activities. Different kinds of explosives are used for different purposes. Initiating explosives are used t o set off more stable explosives. Low explosives are used in some ammunition shells, blasting charges, and fireworks. High explosives (HE'S) are used as main charges, especially in weapon systems. Exdosives are aenerallv svnthesized com~ounds foror mulated mixturesof compou&ds. However, some very danaerous exnlosive systems can be accidentally created by both professionals and laymen. Among these &e methane-air mixtures found in landfills or digester gas (sewage) plants located near residential areas, undetected explosive devices left by the military in areas that have since been converted to domestic use, the dust from the storage of grain and fertilizers, and misplaced or lost blasting caps or dynamites from construction projects. Appropriate precautions, safeguards, and expertise must be used to eliminate the hazards arising from these situations. Black powder is sensitive to flames, sparks, and friction. When confined, black nowder can be heated to a relativelv high temperature before an explosion will occur. However, it can be ignited easilv by a simple snark. Black-powder fires can cause severe damage to ocher eiplosives and to individuals. Do not attempt to fiaht a black-powder fire. Black powder can be desensitized b; pouring i t into water. Even empty black-powder containers should he washed before discarding. ~ c c i d e n t s have been reported that were caused by contaminated black-powder containers.
Hiah Exolosives (Secondarv Exolosives) - . . . Highexplosives (HE'S) arechemicalcompoundsor chemical com~ositions that are much more stable than initiatine explosives. These are used almost exclusively for main charges. Some high explosives are insensitive t o mild shock, friction, flames, and heat, and they are generally set off by blasting caps or other initiators. When initiated by a blastingcap, the intense shock wave creates many hot spots within the explosive causing extremely rapid conversion of the solid into gaseous products with the subsequent release of heat and light. The noise one hears from an explosion is the shock wave generated by the hot, rapidly expanding gases moving through the air at the speed of sound. Energy release is almost instantaneous. High explosives are generally more easily handled because of their added stability. Some typical HE'S are nitroglycerin [CH2(N03)CH(N03) CHzN031, trinitrotoluene (TNT), hexahydro-1,3,5-trinitro1,3,5-triazine (RDX), 1,3,5-triamino-2,4-trinitrobenene (TATB), pentaerythritol tetranitrate (PETN), dynamite (principal explosive ingredient ammonium nitrate or nitroglycerin), and Composition B (6013911 wt% RDXITNTI wax). Dvnamite is the high exvlosive that the lavman is most - . likely to encounter. Its composition varies widely with its use. The principal explosive ingredient is ammonium nitrate or nitroglycerin. However, explosive or nonexplosive sensitizers often are added to brine about its detonation. Sensitizers are miatcriak that enhance the detonation wave propagationcharacteristics. thus reducing thecritical (failure)diameter of the explosive. The criticai diameter i s t h e minimum diameter of a cylindrical charge of high explosive required to sustain a high-order, steady-state detonation. The critical diameter is a function of charge confinement, charge density, material particle size, and the initial temperature of the charge. Sensitizers can also he impurities in the explosive. Liquid sensitizers are usually added with carbonaceous absorbent material t o prevent leakage and to obtain a suitable oxveen balance. Ethvlene elvcol dinitrate is an examnle of a successful liquid sensitizer. ~ m o n the solid sensitizers are g nitro-oraanic com~ounds such as nitrotoluene. nitrostarch. and nitr&aphthaieue. Aluminum and sulfur a;e also added as solid sensitizers. Shock and heat can cause dvnamite mixtures to explode. Some grades of dynamite alsdgive off poisonous aases. - Figure lgives the three basic steps in an explosive train. I t also shows the relationship between primary and secondary explosivrs Ulilsting caps ihemselves, common explosive devices, utilile this relatiunship in their constructton (2).


Clasrlficatlon of Explosives Explosives can be classified in many ways ( I ) . We have chosen to limit our classification to the manner and the ease with which they react. Initiating or Primary Explosives Primary explosives are generally sensitive to light, heat, shock. snarks. and static electricitv. Thev are verv unstable and &'be detonated directly when acted upon dy external forces. Examnles are mercurv fulminate. H e ( 0 N c ) ~lead . azide, P ~ ( N & , cyanurictriazide [ c ~ N ~ ( N ~ leadstypb)~J,' nate, [CsH(N02)30~Pb. HzO], and silver acetylide, [AgzCz]. These are usually packaged as disc- or capsule-type detonators such as blasting caps used to stimulate (set off) enereetlead a ~ i d may he use> to e ic reactionsinothersystems.'~'hus, initiate a RDX- or I'KrN-(hexahydro-1.3,s.-trinitro-1,3,3triazine and pentaerythritol tetranitrate, respectively) base charge. Special standardized procedures and the proper safeguards must be enforced during the preparation and use of initiating or primary explosives.
Low Explosives

Low exnlosives are chemical cornnositions or chemical compounds that deflagrate by a seif-sustaining reaction (burn slowlv. when unconfined) over a eiven neriod of time. when confined, they may react withexplosive violence. Therefore, they are used often in propellants, where controlled burning is important, and in blasting operations. Black powder or gunpowder is an example. Black powder is composed of charcoal, sulfur, and potassium nitrate or sodium nitrate.

Volume 64 Number 6 June 1987


Most detonation devices. Figures 2-5 show representations of electrical and nonelectrical blasting caos (2). These vapors can be ignited easily by cigarettes. Du Pont no. when stored in garages or barns. or burn rapidly. or from static electricity. 542 Journal o f Chemical Education . digester gas or landfill gas accumulations in residential sections. paint thinners.. Althaueh they are not safe. such as gasoline. Sucha system will ignite with explosiveviolence. Delay igniters are a combination of igniters and fuses. can sometimes become contaminated with oil from lawn mowers or production machinery. Domestlc Explosive Systems One very common domestic explosive system is the accumulation of large volumes of gas-air mixtures. Igniters are squibs (plain or electric).PRN OPEN END INSERnON SAFEIY N RUBBER PLUG. SHY& LEG WIRBI SH' WDGE wnE E L E ' / 'wGE INSERTION OF SAFFil NSE SASE OPEN END WR I Figure 2. or the pilot light of a gas stove or hot water heater or any other source of flames. they have a relatively slow-hurnine match head attached to one end. Military Corps of Engineers Special no. candles. dry cleaning fluids. ammonium nitrate. while nonelectrical blasting caps need a fuse for ignition. IGNlilON CHARGE PRIMING CHARGE BASE CHARGE RDX Two general types of devices or methods are used to set off explosives: igniters and detonators. The initiating (verv sensitive) exolosive is near the ooen end of the cun khiie the less senskive base charge is ciosest to the close2 end of the cup. Construction and military personnel sometimes lose live blasting caps in areas where they could be found and handled by children. Fine dust particles from grain can evenly distribute themselves amone the available air in a erain elevator. 6 commerciai electric blasting cap COPPOl OR ALUMINUMSHN D e t o n a t i n g Devices . and adhesives. match. could cause such mixtures to detonate. or even a backfire from equipment. Sparks from a light switch or telephone. Sauibs are small-diameter tubes of oaner or straw . - are urged to he able to identify blasting caps and notify the local police if one is found in a residential environment. However. are unsafe in coal-mining operations because of the probability of igniting the dust or . they are still being used in some coilmining ooerations. detonate.ALUMiNUM ALLOY CUP SuLN' / IGNllION CHARGE (LEAD 5NPHNATE AND ?ARIUM / INTBMWIAE CHARGE [LEAD U l D f l 1 B A ~ CHARGE E (RDX) Figure 3. Electrical blasting cans are set off by essentiall. Some common sources found in buildings are natural gas (methane). They look like shiny empty rifle or pistol shells. They are standard and relatively safe for use in metal-mining and tunneling operations. Fuels and flammable solvents. The intermediate or primary charge is in the center. and hydrogen-oxygen mixtures near life-support equipment. lantern oils. . 8 nonelectric blasting cap. PRIMING ~ A R G E BASE CHARGE . Blasting caps are rather small and easily lost. and oil constitute an explosive mixture that could be ignited by a cigarette. propane.or three-layered charges of explosive within. they are very dangerous and could he injurious or even fatal to an individual if accidentally exploded. and delay ieniters. IGNmON WRGE. The paper bag. Do not attempt t o destroy t h e blasting cap. This hecomes a suitable fuel for a reaction-A spark can ignite this fine erain-dust-air mixture creating a violent exolosion. or butane gas leaks. 8 electric blasting cap ALUMINUM ALLOY S H Y Figure 1. Military Corps of Engineers special no. filled with a quick-burning powder. Blasting caps are shells or cups made of copper or aluminum alloy. fuses. Fuses are usuallv fine oarticles of black powder wrapped in a coarse fiber forming a ropelike material. IGNnlOu MIX / Figure 4. pas oresent ~. insiantaneous vaporizationuof bridge wires. Therefore. sparks. Igniters carry to the explosive mass a flame that lights the explosive mass. Du Pont no. laymen Figure 5. Basic three-step explosive train. 6 commerciel nonelectric blasting cap. " Ammonium nitrate fertilizer. in the mine. can be vaporized even at room temperature. The vapors will travel an unimaginable distance in a very short time forming an explosive air-solvent mixture. Detonators deliver a shockwave that causes the explosive to dissociate. even electric blasting caps. They are closed a t one end and contain two.

Thew can he rmtrolled by varying the composition and the manner in which the explosive is confined. and light are a few of the external forces known initiate explosives.g. walls. When heated. Also. - Explosions Explosions are extremely rapid reactions characterized by a sharp increase in pressure a t the reaction site. resting on a metal surface. and they contain a propellant that is easily vaporized. For flammable solvents intended for use indoors. A gallon of gasoline would liberate about 62 times much energy as pound of dynamite. For example. The pressure inside a closed container can exceed the allowable limits. These data are useful in planning for long-term storage of explosives. RDX is sensitive to friction. however. read labels carefully. i t is usually a surface phenomenon. All flammahle solvents should be stored in a well-ventilated area. friction. Table 1gives results from tested explosives. kerosene. Table 2 gives results with some tested explosives (3).Table 1. TATB would not react under the conditions of the test. add only a small amount of calcium hypochlorite to a large volume of water. a solid used to disinfect swimming pools. This results in a self-propagating reaction that could lead to a detonation. These chemicals should not be brought into the house nor should they be used for anything other than their stated purpose. The confinement of black powder in a blasting cap creates this kind of a system. As a general rule. Dry chemicals used by laymen are also potential explosive hazards. The ease with which they can be made to react by external forces is a measure of their sensitivity toward that force. Explosives are considered thermodynamically unstable systems. floors. is % example. and light are final products. Exploding hot water heaters have as a Equipment has been designed to measure the explosive response to the stress and heat generated by friction when an explosive is rubbed between rough surfaces. primary explosives < secondary sensitive H E < secondary insensitive HE (e. I t is believed that friction causes heat to concentrate in localized areas creating hot spots within the explosive. never the reverse. with a hammer. Sensitivity of Explosives Determined by Drop-Weight Imnact Test Type 12 H . The burnine process is a self-sustainina reaction. Others exolode before thev melt. Calcium hwochlorite. The compound mercury fulminate is an example of the latter. Use a dry. explosive types are arranged according to their thermal stability. Gaseous products expand into a volume much greater than the original unreacted material and can severely deform or totally destroy objects in the vicinity. etc. clean scoop t o transfer the chemical and store the original container where it cannot come in contact with moisture. Generally. Soil or sandpaper is sometimes used as an abrasive and a force or load is necessary in this test. Aerosol cans are pressurized. rubber. The compound liberates chlorine gas when it comes in contact with moisture. r An idea of the stability of an explosive t o mechanical impact can he obtained simply by striking a few milligrams. The oxygen needed . see the example calculation in the Appendix. Results of Friction Tests In the Granlte Groove Friction Apparatus Steel Slider Loads kg Explosive 10 20 30 40 50 60 70 80 90 100 150 200 Lead mide E PETN E Blasting Gelatine E 0 LFB-Dynamite Nitro~ell~lo~e RDX Powder 688 "Borenitl' Powder 401 Tetryl Gurit "Nitrolit" 0 O E E O O K K K E One of the first sensitivity tests performed for safety purposes is to burn milligram quantities of the explosive inlover an open flame. Heat. lead azide < RDX < TATB). Sensitivity to Impact 0 O K O O K E 0 0 K O 0 0 0 O 0 0 K 0 0 0 = NOaudible o visible elfed: E = Explodon: K = CRickiing noise a minor flash. Gases. More precise data can be obtained using a differential thermal calorimeter. Brief descriptions of these three classes follow. one pound of gasoline can explode with almost 10 times as much enerm liberated as would he -. Chlorine gas is poisonous and can cause fires and explosions if brought in contact with compounds such as turpentine.5 kg (5. causing the container to explode. and give off gaspri~ducts. heat. the system will explode with violence sometimes destroying houses and killing or maiming individuals in the vicinity. The deflagration of black powder is an example. In the open air a deflagration is generally slow (rate meterslsecond) with practically no sound. liberated form one pound of dynamite.lies not come from the air but is found within the compound's structure. Gasoline should not be used t o clean soiled clothing. Many explosives will melt before reaching an exolosion temperature. Therefore. Aerosol explosions are not as energetic as those produced from flammable solvents or fuels. Volume 64 Number 6 June 1987 543 . Explosions are accompanied by a loud sound. and (3)detonations. paint. Precise dropweight impact machines have been designed to give more reliable data on impact sensitivity or to establish the critical impact energy necessary to make the compound or mixture explode. but the flying pieces of metal can be lethal. ammonia gas. A malfunctioning safety valve on a hot water heater can create such an explosive system. (cm) 5 Explosive Lead Azide PETN RDX TNT TATB ' been known to penetrate both floors of a two-story building. Both thermostats and safety valves should be checked periodically. eous Deflagration This is the autocombustion of explosive particles.5 Iblweight needs toFall to inltistethematerial 50% of the time. Explosive Reactions Explosive reactions are exothermic. Sensitivity to Heat <10 12 28 148 >300 eDistetancsa 2. Sensitivity to Friction When ignited. (2) can explosions. when confined and mixed with the proper volume of air. fast.. impact. Table 2. flame.They be classified as ( 1 ) deflngrntions. or alcohols. the pressure within the can becomes so great that the can explodes.

R. 0. have standard operating procedures (SOP'S). good example. T o the construction worker. N.S.. two things are basic. Sax... Terminal Roilistics.. they are a means of welding metal. They are used by farmers instead of manpower to remove trees. X 3-in. Government Printing Offim: Washington.460 BTUIgal Conclusion For many. or of dieeine canals. using a fuse and a metal sleeve filled with black powder. 4. M. For the layman. Although usually associated with high explosives. classification. FL. or handle explosives occasionally. 1979:pp WLC*? . In the detonation. CA. The difference between an explosion and a detonation can be shown best by describing their effects upon a physical object. which outline in detail a sequence of emergency responses. the hlock is broken up into large chunks. and trans~ortation. 1967: 1970:~ 137. U. E. and safety aspeets. Emergency Response The time and manner in which one responds to a potentially explosive situation or to an explosion can save hoth lives and property. To the military. is a "W - Comparison 4. T o recoenize a situation involving explosives and to know how to d e z with it cansave many lives. Detonations are almost always associated w&h a shock wave traveling a t a given v e ~ o c % ~ (detonation velocity) (4). In many areas. 7. R.Explosiues (6).325. explosives are sources of otherwise unavailable energy to do work. Basic knowledge about explosive safety is of a definite benefit to laymen who might accidentally create an explosive atmosphere. Explosives: Verlsg Chemie: Deerfield. 6. Ener#etic Moteriais. the effects are quite different. DC. some less sensitive explosives such as propellants and ammonium nitrate can be made to detonate if properly confined. of hlastine for road construction. 1977: p 431. the emergency telephone number is 911. reactions. H. One example ia found in Military Erpiorima: Departments of the Army and Air Force Teehniesl Manual. ~ ~ Literature Cited 1.. Plenum: New Yark. This results in a much higher pressure. The wooden hlock is then blown into sawdust-size particles. shatter boulders. such as factories..Walker. Dongerour Propertieao(Indudrio1 Moleriois.. no one should attempt to use explosives who has not been trained to do so.6 453 Kcalllb dynamite 544 Journal of Chemical Education . Most major facilities. and drill wells. wooden block. 1981. Although the energy in hoth systems is nearly the same. To industry. government laboratories. the fire department. leave the hazard area. (1) if possible. their recognition. Bsckman. especially in the use of solid:propellants rocket boosters. the energy is delivered in a much shorter period of time. Naval Weapons Center: Chins Lake. If an explosion is made to occur inside a 5-in..Detonations Detonations are ex~losions propagating a t a constant rate that exceeds the speed of so&d'(rate of a few kilometers1 second) in a given substance.The mace industrv. Using a blasting cap and following the same procedure the system can he made to detonate. This brief introduction to explosives. Fair. F. Reinhold: New York. 1976. and military establishments. 6. . Nov. and Terminal Ballistics (7). X l-in. and (2) notify the proper authorities. the police. or local military ordnance group. explosives are big business in various aspects of uroduction. I. can he used in conjunction with other resource books such as the Dangerous Properties of Industrial Materials (5).. explosives are a means of maintaining defense. use. However. which is very destructive. Appendix: Example Caiculatlon Dynamite Detonation Energy = 1Kcallg 453 gilb X 1 Kcallg = 453 Kealflh Gasoline (n-Octane) Heat of combustion = 112.4 Kcalflb gasoline = 9. Meye.

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