On the Implausibility of the Explosives Plot
Really interesting analysis of the chemistry involved in the alleged UK terrorist plot:
Based on the claims in the media, it sounds like the idea was to mix H2O2 (hydrogen peroxide, but not the low test kind you get at the pharmacy), H2SO4 (sulfuric acid, of necessity very concentrated for it to work at all), and acetone (known to people worldwide as nail polish remover), to make acetone peroxides. You first have to mix the H2O2 and H2SO4 to get a powerful oxidizer, and then you use it on acetone to get the peroxides, which are indeed explosive.
A mix of H2O2 and H2SO4, commonly called "piranha bath", is used in orgo labs around the world for cleaning the last traces out of organic material out of glassware when you need it *really* clean -- thus, many people who work around organic labs are familiar with it. When you mix it, it heats like mad, which is a common thing when you mix concentrated sulfuric acid with anything. It is very easy to end up with a spattering mess. You don't want to be around the stuff in general. Here, have a look at a typical warning list from a lab about the stuff:
Now you may protest "but terrorists who are willing to commit suicide aren't going to be deterred by being injured while mixing their precursor chemicals!" -- but of course, determination isn't the issue here, getting the thing done well enough to make the plane go boom is the issue. There is also the small matter of explaining to the guy next to you what you're doing, or doing it in a tiny airplane bathroom while the plane jitters about.
Now, they could of course mix up their oxidizer in advance, but then finding a container to keep the stuff in that isn't going to melt is a bit of an issue. The stuff reacts violently with *everything*. You're not going to keep piranha bath in a shampoo bottle -- not unless the shampoo bottle was engineered by James Bond's Q. Glass would be most appropriate, assuming that you could find a way to seal it that wouldn't be eaten.
Read the whole thing.
EDITED TO ADD (8/16): More speculation.
EDITED TO ADD (8/17): Even more speculation.
Posted on August 16, 2006 at 7:32 AM • 91 Comments