Home Home Astronomy Chemistry Electronics Mathematics Physics Field Trips Home  

Chapter 13: Nitrogen and its Compounds


The word dynamite - the product and the name invented by Alfred Nobel - comes from the Greek word δυναμιν (dunamin), meaning "abundant power". It in the word used in Luke 24:49, the last verse in which Jesus speaks in the Gospel of Luke (quoted from NIV).

I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.

As an aside, there is no Nobel prize for mathematics, and the matter has been the subject of speculation ever since. Wikipedia:

A common legend states that Nobel decided against a prize in mathematics because a woman - said to be either his fiancé or mistress - rejected him for or cheated on him with a famous mathematician, often claimed to be Gösta Mittag-Leffler. There is no historical evidence to support the story, and Nobel was never married.

In 2003 the Abel Prize (named after a Norwegian mathematician), awarded by the king of Norway, was created to fill the gap.

Error in textbook: Alfred Nobel did not invent the blasting cap. That was invented 119 years earlier, and several different forms were invented before Alfred Nobel produced the first pyrotechnic fuse blasting cap in 1864. The first "generally modern type" blasting cap came along 11 years later, invented by someone else. Wikipedia:

The first blasting cap or detonator was demonstrated in 1745, when a Dr. Watson of the Royal Society showed that the electric spark of a Leyden Jar could ignite black powder.

In 1750, Benjamin Franklin in Philadelphia made a commercial blasting cap consisting of a paper tube full of black powder, with wires leading in both sides and wadding sealing up the ends. The two wires came close but did not touch, so a large electric spark discharge between the two wires would fire the cap.

In 1822 the first hot wire detonator was produced by Dr Robert Hare. Using one strand separated out of a multistrand wire as the hot bridgewire, this blasting cap ignited a pyrotechnic mixture (believed to be potassium chlorate/arsenic/sulphur) and then a charge of tamped black powder.

In 1864, Alfred Nobel introduced the first pyrotechnic fuse blasting cap, using mercury fulminate to detonate dynamite.

In 1868, H. Julius Smith introduced a cap that combined a spark gap ignitor and mercury fulminate, the first electric cap able to detonate dynamite.

In 1875, Perry "Pell" Gardiner and Smith independently developed and marketed caps which combined the hot wire detonator with mercury fulminate explosive. These were the first generally modern type blasting caps. Modern caps use different explosives and separate primary and secondary explosive charges, but are generally very similar to the Gardiner and Smith caps.

Electric match caps were developed in the early 1900s in Germany, and spread to the US in the 1950s when ICI International purchased Atlas Powder Co. These match caps have become the predominant world standard cap type.

Error in textbook: 1901 was the beginning of last century, not near the beginning. The textbook author apparently can't count. There are 100 years in a century, with the first century being AD 1 to AD 100, with no year numbered AD 0.

Error in textbook: The last year of last century was actually 2000. The textbook author apparently still can't count.

The 2000 Nobel Prize in Chemistry was won by Alan Heeger, Alan MacDiarmid, and Hideki Shirakawa. Alan MacDiarmid was born on 14 April 1927 in Masterton, New Zealand. He and his two colleagues worked on conductive polymers (first reported in 1977), for which they were awarded the Nobel Prize. Wikipedia: He was awarded New Zealand's highest honour, the Order of New Zealand, in 2001. The MacDiarmid Institute for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology at Victoria University is named after him. He died on 7 February 2007. More from Wikipedia:

The Nobel Prize was awarded for the discovery that plastics can, after certain modifications, be made electrically conductive. The work progressed to yield important practical applications. Conductive plastics can be used for anti-static substances for photographic film and 'smart' windows that can exclude sunlight. Semi-conductive polymers have been applied in light-emitting diodes, solar cells and displays in mobile telephones. Future developments in molecular electronics are predicted to dramatically increase the speed and reduce the size of computers.

The 1997 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL) and its chief spokesperson Jody Williams, for their work in bringing about the Mine Ban Treaty, signed by 122 governments in December 1997. It's also called the Ottawa Treaty, after the city in which it was signed, and came into force in March 1999. My father Neil Mander represented the New Zealand Campaign Against Landmines (CALM, a member of ICBL), at the Ottawa Convention, along with the then New Zealand Convenor John Head. My father went on to become CALM Convenor in New Zealand. There are now 161 governments that have signed the treaty.

Nitrogen and explosives

Many explosives require concentrated acids, particulary nitric acid, to create them. Nitric acid is particularly useful for making explosives because of what it can do with nitrogen atoms, basically setting them up to form nitrogen gas with the right trigger.

Almost all explosives have nitrogen in them, making use of the large amount of energy released by the formation of N2 gas (triple bond, remember). The formation of each molecule of N2 releases about 3.4 times the amount of energy that the formation of a single water molecule, H2O, does from hydrogen and oxygen gases.

TNT molecule

Some explosive examples:

  • Black powder is 75% potassium nitrate (KNO3, or saltpetre).
  • Nitroglycerin (C3H5N3O9, or propane-1,2,3-triyl trinitrate, called glyceryl trinitrate when used in medicine).
  • TNT, trinitrotoluene (C7H5N3O6, or methyl-1,3,5-trinitrobenzene).

Wikipedia makes these comments about TNT:

TNT was first synthesised by Joseph Wilbrand in the year 1863, and the first large-scale production began in Germany in 1891.


TNT is quite toxic. It can also be absorbed through the skin, and will cause irritation and bright yellow staining. During the First World War, munition workers who handled the chemical found that their skin turned bright yellow, which led to the nickname "canary girls" or simply "canaries" to describe such workers. TNT would also eventually make ginger hair turn green. ... Consumption of TNT produces black urine.


TNT was first made in 1863 by a German chemist Joseph Wilbrand, but its potential was not seen for several years, mainly because it was so hard to detonate and because it was less powerful than other explosives. Among its advantages, however, is its ability to be safely melted using steam or hot water, and so can be poured molten into shell cases. ... It is also so insensitive that, for example, in 1910 it was exempted from the UK's Explosives Act 1875, i.e. not actually being considered an explosive for the purposes of manufacture and storage.

Advanced – TNT equivalent

The energy released by an explosive, asteroid impact, or earthquake is described by its TNT equivalent - the amount of TNT required to release the same amount of energy. For nuclear weapons this is expressed in kilotons or megatons. The most powerful nuclear bomb ever detonated was the Tsar Bomba which was 57 megatons (30 October 1961 - USSR). The 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake (which caused widespread tsunamis) released the equivalent energy of 100 gigatons of TNT. Whatever caused the Chicxulub crater in Mexico may have released the equivalent of as much as 190,000 gigatons of TNT.

Bomb Name Location Date Type Yield Notes
Little Boy Hiroshima, Japan 6 August 1945 fission 12-18 kT

First of two nuclear weapons in war.

Only 1.38% of its material fissioned.

Fat Man Nagasaki, Japan 9 August 1945 fission 18-23 kT

Second of two nuclear weapons in war.

The explosion generated heat estimated at 3,900°C and winds that were estimated to be over 1,000 km/h.

Castle Bravo Bikini Atoll, Marshall Islands 1 March 1954 fission & fusion 15,000 kT
(15 MT)

First practical deliverable fusion bomb in the U.S. arsenal. Fifth largest nuclear explosion in history.

The resulting explosion far exceeded the expected yield of 4 to 6 megatons, which contributed to the most significant accidental radiological contamination ever caused by the United States. However it should be remembered that 10 megatons of the total 15-megaton yield were from fissioning of the natural uranium tamper, not from fusion of the secondary fuels.

In terms of TNT tonnage equivalence, Castle Bravo was 1,000-1,200 times more powerful than the atomic bombs which were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II.

Tsar Bomba Novaya Zemlya, USSR 31 October 1961 fission & fusion 50,000-57,000 kT
(57 MT)
Largest thermonuclear weapon ever tested, scaled down from its initial 100 MT design by 50%

Ammonium nitrate (NH4NO3) is a high nitrogen fertiliser and often used for explosives, mixed with diesel or kerosene. This sort of explosive is sometimes called ANFO, for ammonium nitrate/fuel oil. TNT is mixed with ammonium nitrate to make an explosive called amatol. Ammonium nitrate is also an explosive by itself, not needing any outside fuel, and is used in instant cold packs, since mixing it with water draws in heat instead of giving off heat. It's also used to make nitrous oxide (N2O, laughing gas).