Global Challenges/Chemistry Solutions: New Solutions 2009

Promoting Personal Safety & National Security: Another “Mother of Satan?”

April 30, 2009

Detonation of 2/100th of an ounce of triacetone
triperoxide (TATP) — a trivial sample size compared
to quantities in modern-day terrorist materials —
emits a shock wave that destroys a nearby water
balloon. At the 237th ACS National Meeting,
chemists are reporting that a new, more powerful
explosive related to TATP is unlikely.

Credit: Gerard Harbison, Ph.D.
(High-resolution version )
Click here to watch a video of the TATP explosion
narrated by Harbison.
(Note: latest version of QuickTime required)


Known in Palestine as the Mother of
Satan, triacetone triperoxide, or TATP,
is an easily made explosive with a
vicious history. In this episode,
scientists from DARPA investigate
whether a lethal new kind of TATP
threatens America's security.


Known in Palestine as the Mother of Satan, triacetone triperoxide, or TATP, is an easily made explosive with a vicious history. It was used by the “shoe bomber,” Richard Reid, in his failed attempt to blow up a transatlantic airline flight in 2001. TATP also has been used by other terrorists around the world, including suicide bombers in the Palestinian Intifada.

Here’s Gerard Harbison, a chemist with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, with more details on the explosive:

“TATP is used by terrorists firstly because it’s very easy to make. And
second of all, it’s easy to set off. You can set it off with a hot wire or just
by hitting it with a hammer. It is, however, only a single member of an
entire class of molecules.”

That it’s only one of many potential threats was of particular concern to Harbison and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA. Reports claiming synthesis of reputedly a more lethal relative to TATP called tetracetone tetraperoxide have circulated on the Web. Working for DARPA, Harbison and his research team became intrigued by this “Internet lore.” They began to investigate the structure of the new explosive to gauge its likelihood of use as an agent of terror.

Using computer simulations to analyze potential explosives similar to TATP, Harbison reports that terrorists are unlikely produce a new form of the deadly, peroxide-based explosives.

The group investigated 20 molecular structures of acetone peroxide compounds and found that all substances larger than TATP are likely too sensitive to be used as weapons. Here’s Dr. Harbison again:

“Based both on our experiments and on the theory, we’re tempted to
conclude that tetracetone tetraperoxide really has never been made and it
probably is impossible to make it. This is good news because what the
world does not need is one more kind of terrorist explosive.”

Harbison added that his team’s review of previous reports of tetracetone tetraperoxide synthesis raised many questions. Taking his research into account, he guessed that people often believed they were making tetracetone tetraperoxide when they were actually making TATP.

A new explosive might not exist, but Harbison hasn’t forgotten about those that do. TATP, for example, poses immediate challenges his team can’t neglect:

“The biggest problem with TATP is that it’s a non-nitrogen-containing
explosive. It’s very different from almost every other explosive that’s been
developed. And so what we’re focusing on is some methods using low
-frequency magnetic resonance to actually detect TATP itself. That remains
a significant hole in our protection capabilities in my opinion — that this
compound is actually not easy to detect. And it’s so easy to make.”

Smart Chemists/Innovative Thinking

Smart chemists. Innovative thinking. That’s the key to solving global challenges of the 21st Century. Please check our full-length podcasts on promoting personal safety & national security. Today’s podcast was written by John Simpson. For the American Chemical Society in Washington, I’m Adam Dylewski.

Gerard Harbison, Ph.D.