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TATP and terrorism

May 2, 2016 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 94, Issue 18

Almost 40 years ago, in early 1977 while I was working as a research chemist at a veterans’ hospital in Minneapolis, I was supposed to prepare both optical isomers of pentobarbital. The reaction mixture yielded an unwanted mystery product with a melting point of 95 °C.

By a rare coincidence, a few days later C&EN published an account of an accidental explosion in Finland caused by triacetone triperoxide (TATP) under the headline “Violent Explosion” (Feb. 21, 1977, page 5). Most of the TATP was lost in the explosion, yet enough was collected to fully identify it. Since then, TATP has been used by the “shoe bomber” Richard Reid and also in the recent terrorist attacks in Brussels (C&EN, April 11, page 17), where the terrorists had 150 L of acetone that emanated an unpleasant odor that any sniffing organic chemist could identify.

It turns out my mystery product from the veterans’ hospital in Minneapolis was actually TATP, which is unstable and explodes on impact. I had isolated only a minute quantity from a mixture containing hydrazine, a known rocket propellant. So an explosion could have been huge and would surely have ended my employment at the hospital if had I survived.

I reported this, and it was published shortly thereafter in C&EN under the headline “Potential Explosion Forewarned” (May 23, 1977, page 4).

Yul Yost
St. Paul


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