The Chemistry Behind Dynamite

The Explosives we All Know


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By: Thomas Ahern, Journalist

If you have ever heard of dynamite, you probably know that it is a largely-used explosive. What you probably don’t know, however, is how it explodes. Believe it or not, this rock does not simply explode by itself. Instead, there is a slightly complicated reaction that occurs when it is exposed to certain reactants. The reactants are fire, electricity, or even just the sun, and they are all closely related to heat.

The remaining question is the why and the how. Since it has an explosive reaction to fire, it is combustible, so it is able to explode or catch fire. The most explosive element is hydrogen, but it is not a major ingredient in dynamite because it is among the most unstable elements.

Dynamite is dangerous, and the poor conditions in the mines will make anybody pay for using such an unstable element. Instead, it uses a liquid material called nitroglycerin, a mixture of glycerin, nitrogen, and sulfuric acid.

The nitroglycerin is a bit more stable, but this means that we require a bit more power to trigger the explosion. The reaction starts with lighting a fuse on fire to create a small explosion in the blasting cap. It is much less likely to be triggered by its less intense reactants due to its higher stability. A small explosion, however, is easily hot enough to trigger the nitroglycerin. The blasting cap is an invention by Alfred Nobel, and it is the entire reason why it is possible to safely use dynamite.

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