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What Is Acetone Peroxide?

Acetone peroxide is a highly explosive organic compound, primarily known for its use in improvised explosive devices due to its easy synthesis from readily available household chemicals: acetone, hydrogen peroxide, and an acid catalyst. It exists in several forms, with triacetone triperoxide (TATP) being the most common and unstable. TATP has been infamously used in terrorist attacks because it's difficult to detect and doesn't contain nitrogen, which is what many standard detection systems look for. However, its volatility makes it extremely dangerous to handle, as it can detonate from heat, friction, or shock.

From a chemical standpoint, acetone peroxide is interesting because it's a peroxide derivative of acetone, where the oxygen atoms form a cyclic backbone, giving it its explosive properties. Despite its notoriety, acetone peroxide also has legitimate uses in the field of chemistry for bleaching and as a laboratory reagent. Due to its instability and the risks associated with its production and use, handling acetone peroxide is strongly discouraged outside of controlled professional environments. The synthesis and possession of acetone peroxide without proper authorization are illegal in many countries.

Karize Uy
Karize Uy

Acetone peroxide is a chemical compound made primarily of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen. If the compound is a dimer, or has two subunits, its chemical formula would be C6H12O4. If it has three subunits and is classified as a trimer, the formula would be C9H1806. Its normal appearance would be in the form of small, white crystals and has a very sharp, probably unpleasant, smell.

The discovery of acetone peroxide is credited to Richard Wolffenstein, a German chemist. While a professor in 1895 at the Technical University of Berlin, Wolffenstein was studying how Coniine, a poisonous chemical compound found in some plants, can be oxidized using different chemicals. In one experiment, he made a solution consisting of acetone as the solvent and Coniine as the solute. Wolffenstein added some hydrogen peroxide into the solution, and accidentally made a mixture that became the acetone peroxide.

Woman holding a book
Woman holding a book

The molecules that make up the acetone peroxide are said to be unstable, making the chemical compound unpredictable and sensitive to some factors such as electricity, heat, and ultraviolet (UV) light. The compound is also sensitive to friction and impact. When the peroxide is triggered by any of the said factors, it can react violently by disintegrating and exploding. The compound becomes more unstable when it contains some impurities; otherwise, it is somewhat stable in its purest form.

There are a few methods to make acetone peroxide less dangerous and less likely to explode, such as keeping it in a liquid state and at a low temperature, ideally less than 50°F (about 10°C). Storing the compound in an airtight container is also a must, as evaporated peroxide in the air is very flammable. It is also believed that the peroxide compound is more stable when it is in its trimer form, compared to the dimer form. While this may be true, the trimer is still very dangerous.

Acetone peroxide is widely known as an explosive and has been used in various suicide bombings and other terrorist attacks. The usage of the compound increased among terrorists because the formula does not contain nitrogen and can, therefore, go through detectors that are sensitive to nitrogen-containing explosives. What makes it more dangerous is that the compound can be easily made out of common household items already containing hydrogen peroxide and acetone, and the “recipe” can be easily obtained from various websites online. Aside from explosives, however, acetone peroxide is commercially used as a flour bleacher and in fiberglass production.

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