Explosive material

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1.25-lb M112 demolition charges consisting of a C-4 explosive atop degraded weaponry scheduled for destruction

An explosive material, also called an explosive, is a reactive substance that contains a great amount of potential energy that can produce an explosion if released suddenly, usually accompanied by the production of light, heat, sound, and pressure. An explosive charge is a measured quantity of explosive material.

This potential energy stored in an explosive material may be

Explosive materials may be categorized by the speed at which they expand. Materials that detonate (explode faster than the speed of sound) are said to be "high explosives" and materials that deflagrate are said to be "low explosives". Explosives may also be categorized by their sensitivity. Sensitive materials that can be initiated by a relatively small amount of heat or pressure are primary explosives and materials that are relatively insensitive are secondary or tertiary explosives.

A wide variety of chemicals can explode; a smaller number are manufactured in quantity as explosives. The remainder are too dangerous, sensitive, toxic, expensive, unstable, or decompose too quickly for common usage.


Though early thermal weapons, such as Greek fire, have existed since ancient times, the first widely used explosive in warfare and mining was black powder, invented in 9th century China (see the history of gunpowder). This material was sensitive to water, and evolved lots of dark smoke. The first useful explosive stronger than black powder was nitroglycerin, developed in 1847. As nitroglycerin was unstable, it was replaced by nitrocellulose, smokeless powder, dynamite and gelignite (the two latter invented by Alfred Nobel). World War I saw the introduction of trinitrotoluene in naval shells. World War II saw an extensive use of new explosives (see explosives used during World War II). In turn, these have largely been replaced by modern explosives such as C-4.

The increased availability of chemicals has allowed the construction of improvised explosive devices.







An explosion is a type of spontaneous chemical reaction that, once initiated, is driven by both a large exothermic change (great release of heat) and a large positive entropy change (great quantities of gases are released) in going from reactants to products, thereby constituting a thermodynamically favorable process in addition to one that propagates very rapidly. Thus, explosives are substances that contain a large amount of energy stored in chemical bonds. The energetic stability of the gaseous products and hence their generation comes from the formation of strongly bonded species like carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, and (di)nitrogen, which contain strong double and triple bonds having bond strengths of nearly 1 MJ/mole. Consequently, most commercial explosives are organic compounds containing -NO2, -ONO2 and -NHNO2 groups that, when detonated, release gases like the aforementioned (e.g., nitroglycerin, TNT, HMX, PETN, nitrocellulose).[1]

An explosive is classified as a low or high explosive according to its rate of burn: low explosives burn rapidly (or deflagrate), while high explosives detonate. While these definitions are distinct, the problem of precisely measuring rapid decomposition makes practical classification of explosives difficult.


The chemical decomposition of an explosive may take years, days, hours, or a fraction of a second. The slower processes of decomposition take place in storage and are of interest only from a stability standpoint. Of more interest are the two rapid forms of decomposition, deflagration and detonation.


In deflagration, the decomposition of the explosive material is propagated by a flame front which moves slowly through the explosive material, in contrast to detonation. Deflagration is a characteristic of low explosive material.


This term is used to describe an explosive phenomenon whereby the decomposition is propagated by an explosive shock wave traversing the explosive material. The shock front is capable of passing through the high explosive material at great speeds, typically thousands of metres per second.


In addition to chemical explosives, there are a number of more exotic explosive materials, and exotic methods of causing explosions. Examples include nuclear explosives, and abruptly heating a substance to a plasma state with a high-intensity laser or electric arc.

Laser- and arc-heating are used in laser detonators, exploding-bridgewire detonators, and exploding foil initiators, where a shock wave and then detonation in conventional chemical explosive material is created by laser- or electric-arc heating. Laser and electric energy are not currently used in practice to generate most of the required energy, but only to initiate reactions.

Properties of explosive materials[edit]

To determine the suitability of an explosive substance for a particular use, its physical properties must first be known. The usefulness of an explosive can only be appreciated when the properties and the factors affecting them are fully understood. Some of the more important characteristics are listed below:

Availability and cost[edit]

The availability and cost of explosives are determined by the availability of the raw materials and the cost, complexity, and safety of the manufacturing operations.


Sensitivity refers to the ease with which an explosive can be ignited or detonated, i.e., the amount and intensity of shock, friction, or heat that is required. When the term sensitivity is used, care must be taken to clarify what kind of sensitivity is under discussion. The relative sensitivity of a given explosive to impact may vary greatly from its sensitivity to friction or heat. Some of the test methods used to determine sensitivity relate to:

Sensitivity is an important consideration in selecting an explosive for a particular purpose. The explosive in an armor-piercing projectile must be relatively insensitive, or the shock of impact would cause it to detonate before it penetrated to the point desired. The explosive lenses around nuclear charges are also designed to be highly insensitive, to minimize the risk of accidental detonation.

Sensitivity to initiation[edit]

The index of the capacity of an explosive to be initiated into detonation in a sustained manner. It is defined by the power of the detonator which is certain to prime the explosive to a sustained and continuous detonation. Reference is made to the Sellier-Bellot scale that consists of a series of 10 detonators, from n. 1 to n. 10, each of which corresponds to an increasing charge weight. In practice, most of the explosives on the market today are sensitive to an n. 8 detonator, where the charge corresponds to 2 grams of mercury fulminate.

Velocity of detonation[edit]

The velocity with which the reaction process propagates in the mass of the explosive. Most commercial mining explosives have detonation velocities ranging from 1800 m/s to 8000 m/s. Today, velocity of detonation can be measured with accuracy. Together with density it is an important element influencing the yield of the energy transmitted for both atmospheric overpressure and ground acceleration.


Stability is the ability of an explosive to be stored without deterioration.

The following factors affect the stability of an explosive:

Power, performance, and strength[edit]

The term power or performance as applied to an explosive refers to its ability to do work. In practice it is defined as the explosive's ability to accomplish what is intended in the way of energy delivery (i.e., fragment projection, air blast, high-velocity jet, underwater shock and bubble energy, etc.). Explosive power or performance is evaluated by a tailored series of tests to assess the material for its intended use. Of the tests listed below, cylinder expansion and air-blast tests are common to most testing programs, and the others support specific applications.

The RBE may be defined as Kx 3
RBE = Ks
where K = the bubble expansion period for an experimental (x) or a standard (s) charge.


In addition to strength, explosives display a second characteristic, which is their shattering effect or brisance (from the French meaning to "break"), which is distinguished and separate from their total work capacity. This characteristic is of practical importance in determining the effectiveness of an explosion in fragmenting shells, bomb casings, grenades, and the like. The rapidity with which an explosive reaches its peak pressure (power) is a measure of its brisance. Brisance values are primarily employed in France and Russia.

The sand crush test is commonly employed to determine the relative brisance in comparison to TNT. No test is capable of directly comparing the explosive properties of two or more compounds; it is important to examine the data from several such tests (sand crush, trauzl, and so forth) in order to gauge relative brisance. True values for comparison require field experiments.


Density of loading refers to the mass of an explosive per unit volume. Several methods of loading are available, including pellet loading, cast loading, and press loading, the choice being determined by the characteristics of the explosive. Dependent upon the method employed, an average density of the loaded charge can be obtained that is within 80–99% of the theoretical maximum density of the explosive. High load density can reduce sensitivity by making the mass more resistant to internal friction. However, if density is increased to the extent that individual crystals are crushed, the explosive may become more sensitive. Increased load density also permits the use of more explosive, thereby increasing the power of the warhead. It is possible to compress an explosive beyond a point of sensitivity, known also as dead-pressing, in which the material is no longer capable of being reliably initiated, if at all.


Volatility is the readiness with which a substance vaporizes. Excessive volatility often results in the development of pressure within rounds of ammunition and separation of mixtures into their constituents. Volatility affects the chemical composition of the explosive such that a marked reduction in stability may occur, which results in an increase in the danger of handling.

Hygroscopicity and water resistance[edit]

The introduction of water into an explosive is highly undesirable since it reduces the sensitivity, strength, and velocity of detonation of the explosive. Hygroscopicity is used as a measure of a material's moisture-absorbing tendencies. Moisture affects explosives adversely by acting as an inert material that absorbs heat when vaporized, and by acting as a solvent medium that can cause undesired chemical reactions. Sensitivity, strength, and velocity of detonation are reduced by inert materials that reduce the continuity of the explosive mass. When the moisture content evaporates during detonation, cooling occurs, which reduces the temperature of reaction. Stability is also affected by the presence of moisture since moisture promotes decomposition of the explosive and, in addition, causes corrosion of the explosive's metal container.

Explosives considerably differ from one another as to their behavior in the presence of water. Gelatin dynamites containing nitroglycerine have a degree of water resistance. Explosives based on ammonium nitrate have little or no water resistance due to the reaction between ammonium nitrate and water, which liberates ammonia, nitrogen dioxide and hydrogen peroxide. In addition, ammonium nitrate is hygroscopic, susceptible to damp, hence the above concerns.


There are many types of explosives which are toxic to some extent. Manufacturing inputs can also be organic compounds or hazardous materials that require special handing due to risks (such as carcinogens). The decomposition products, residual solids or gases of some explosives can be toxic, whereas others are harmless, such as carbon dioxide and water. Examples of harmful by-products are:

Green explosives seek to reduce environment and health impacts. An example of such is the lead-free primary explosive Copper(I) 5-nitrotetrazolate, an alternative to lead azide.

Explosive train[edit]

Explosive material may be incorporated in the explosive train of a device or system. An example is a pyrotechnic lead igniting a booster, which causes the main charge to detonate.

Volume of products of explosion[edit]

The most widely used explosives are condensed liquids or solids converted to gaseous products by explosive chemical reactions and the energy released by those reactions. The gaseous products of complete reaction are typically carbon dioxide, steam, and nitrogen.[2] Gaseous volumes computed by the ideal gas law tend to be too large at high pressures characteristic of explosions.[3] Ultimate volume expansion may be estimated at three orders of magnitude, or one liter per gram of explosive. Explosives with an oxygen deficit will generate soot or gases like carbon monoxide and hydrogen, which may react with surrounding materials such as atmospheric oxygen.[2] Attempts to obtain more precise volume estimates must consider the possibility of such side reactions, condensation of steam, and aqueous solubility of gases like carbon dioxide.[4]

Oxygen balance (OB% or Ω)[edit]

Oxygen balance is an expression that is used to indicate the degree to which an explosive can be oxidized. If an explosive molecule contains just enough oxygen to convert all of its carbon to carbon dioxide, all of its hydrogen to water, and all of its metal to metal oxide with no excess, the molecule is said to have a zero oxygen balance. The molecule is said to have a positive oxygen balance if it contains more oxygen than is needed and a negative oxygen balance if it contains less oxygen than is needed.[5] The sensitivity, strength, and brisance of an explosive are all somewhat dependent upon oxygen balance and tend to approach their maxima as oxygen balance approaches zero.

Chemical composition[edit]

A chemical explosive may consist of either a chemically pure compound, such as nitroglycerin, or a mixture of a fuel and an oxidizer, such as black powder or grain dust and air.

Chemically pure compounds[edit]

Some chemical compounds are unstable in that, when shocked, they react, possibly to the point of detonation. Each molecule of the compound dissociates into two or more new molecules (generally gases) with the release of energy.

The above compositions may describe most of the explosive material, but a practical explosive will often include small percentages of other substances. For example, dynamite is a mixture of highly sensitive nitroglycerin with sawdust, powdered silica, or most commonly diatomaceous earth, which act as stabilizers. Plastics and polymers may be added to bind powders of explosive compounds; waxes may be incorporated to make them safer to handle; aluminium powder may be introduced to increase total energy and blast effects. Explosive compounds are also often "alloyed": HMX or RDX powders may be mixed (typically by melt-casting) with TNT to form Octol or Cyclotol.

Mixture of oxidizer and fuel[edit]

An oxidizer is a pure substance (molecule) that in a chemical reaction can contribute some atoms of one or more oxidizing elements, in which the fuel component of the explosive burns. On the simplest level, the oxidizer may itself be an oxidizing element, such as gaseous or liquid oxygen.

Classification of explosive materials[edit]

By sensitivity[edit]

Primary explosive[edit]

A primary explosive is an explosive that is extremely sensitive to stimuli such as impact, friction, heat, static electricity, or electromagnetic radiation. A relatively small amount of energy is required for initiation. As a very general rule, primary explosives are considered to be those compounds that are more sensitive than PETN. As a practical measure, primary explosives are sufficiently sensitive that they can be reliably initiated with a blow from a hammer; however, PETN can also usually be initiated in this manner, so this is only a very broad guideline. Additionally, several compounds, such as nitrogen triiodide, are so sensitive that they cannot even be handled without detonating. Nitrogen triiodide is so sensitive that it can be reliably detonated by exposure to alpha radiation; it is the only explosive for which this is true.

Primary explosives are often used in detonators or to trigger larger charges of less sensitive secondary explosives. Primary explosives are commonly used in blasting caps and percussion caps to translate a physical shock signal. In other situations, different signals such as electrical/physical shock, or in the case of laser detonation systems, light, are used to initiate an action, i.e., an explosion. A small quantity, usually milligrams, is sufficient to initiate a larger charge of explosive that is usually safer to handle.[6]

Examples of primary high explosives are:

Secondary explosive[edit]

A secondary explosive is less sensitive than a primary explosive and require substantially more energy to be initiated. Because they are less sensitive they are usable in a wider variety of applications and are safer to handle and store. Secondary explosives are used in larger quantities in an explosive train and are usually initiated by a smaller quantity of a primary explosive.

Examples of secondary explosives include TNT and RDX.

Tertiary explosive[edit]

Tertiary explosives, also called blasting agents, are so insensitive to shock that they cannot be reliably detonated by practical quantities of primary explosive, and instead require an intermediate explosive booster of secondary explosive. These are often used for safety and the typically lower costs of material and handling. Primary users are large-scale mining and construction operations. They have also been used for terrorist attacks, because of the sometimes ready availability of large quantities of precursors (e.g. nitrate fertilisers).

ANFO is an example of a tertiary explosive.

By velocity[edit]

Low explosives[edit]

Low explosives are compounds where the rate of decomposition proceeds through the material at less than the speed of sound. The decomposition is propagated by a flame front (deflagration) which travels much more slowly through the explosive material than a shock wave of a high explosive. Under normal conditions, low explosives undergo deflagration at rates that vary from a few centimeters per second to approximately 400 metres per second. It is possible for them to deflagrate very quickly, producing an effect similar to a detonation. This can happen under higher pressure or temperature, which usually occurs when ignited in a confined space.

A low explosive is usually a mixture of a combustible substance and an oxidant that decomposes rapidly (deflagration); however, they burn more slowly than a high explosive, which has an extremely fast burn rate.

Low explosives are normally employed as propellants. Included in this group are gunpowders and light pyrotechnics, such as flares and fireworks, but can replace high explosives in certain applications, see gas pressure blasting.

High explosives[edit]

High explosives are explosive materials that detonate, meaning that the explosive shock front passes through the material at a supersonic speed. High explosives detonate with explosive velocity ranging from 3 to 9 km/s. They are normally employed in mining, demolition, and military applications. They can be divided into two explosives classes differentiated by sensitivity: primary explosive and secondary explosive. The term high explosive is in contrast with the term low explosive, which explodes (deflagrates) at a lower rate.

By composition[edit]

Priming composition[edit]

Priming compositions are primary explosives mixed with other compositions to control (lessen) the sensitivity of the mixture to the desired property.

For example, primary explosives are so sensitive that they need to be stored and shipped in a wet state to prevent accidental initiation.

By physical form[edit]

Explosives are often characterized by the physical form that the explosives are produced or used in. These use forms are commonly categorized as:[8]

Shipping label classifications[edit]

Shipping labels and tags may include both United Nations and national markings.

United Nations markings include numbered Hazard Class and Division (HC/D) codes and alphabetic Compatibility Group codes. Though the two are related, they are separate and distinct. Any Compatibility Group designator can be assigned to any Hazard Class and Division. An example of this hybrid marking would be a consumer firework, which is labeled as 1.4G or 1.4S.

Examples of national markings would include United States Department of Transportation (U.S. DOT) codes.

United Nations Organization (UNO) Hazard Class and Division (HC/D)[edit]

Explosives warning sign

The Hazard Class and Division (HC/D) is a numeric designator within a hazard class indicating the character, predominance of associated hazards, and potential for causing personnel casualties and property damage. It is an internationally accepted system that communicates using the minimum amount of markings the primary hazard associated with a substance.[9]

Listed below are the Divisions for Class 1 (Explosives):

To see an entire UNO Table, browse Paragraphs 3-8 and 3-9 of NAVSEA OP 5, Vol. 1, Chapter 3.

Class 1 Compatibility Group[edit]

Compatibility Group codes are used to indicate storage compatibility for HC/D Class 1 (explosive) materials. Letters are used to designate 13 compatibility groups as follows.

A: Primary explosive substance (1.1A).

B: An article containing a primary explosive substance and not containing two or more effective protective features. Some articles, such as detonator assemblies for blasting and primers, cap-type, are included. (1.1B, 1.2B, 1.4B).

C: Propellant explosive substance or other deflagrating explosive substance or article containing such explosive substance (1.1C, 1.2C, 1.3C, 1.4C). These are bulk propellants, propelling charges, and devices containing propellants with or without means of ignition. Examples include single-, double-, triple-based, and composite propellants, solid propellant rocket motors and ammunition with inert projectiles.

D: Secondary detonating explosive substance or black powder or article containing a secondary detonating explosive substance, in each case without means of initiation and without a propelling charge, or article containing a primary explosive substance and containing two or more effective protective features. (1.1D, 1.2D, 1.4D, 1.5D).

E: Article containing a secondary detonating explosive substance without means of initiation, with a propelling charge (other than one containing flammable liquid, gel or hypergolic liquid) (1.1E, 1.2E, 1.4E).

F containing a secondary detonating explosive substance with its means of initiation, with a propelling charge (other than one containing flammable liquid, gel or hypergolic liquid) or without a propelling charge (1.1F, 1.2F, 1.3F, 1.4F).

G: Pyrotechnic substance or article containing a pyrotechnic substance, or article containing both an explosive substance and an illuminating, incendiary, tear-producing or smoke-producing substance (other than a water-activated article or one containing white phosphorus, phosphide or flammable liquid or gel or hypergolic liquid) (1.1G, 1.2G, 1.3G, 1.4G). Examples include Flares, signals, incendiary or illuminating ammunition and other smoke and tear producing devices.

H: Article containing both an explosive substance and white phosphorus (1.2H, 1.3H). These articles will spontaneously combust when exposed to the atmosphere.

J: Article containing both an explosive substance and flammable liquid or gel (1.1J, 1.2J, 1.3J). This excludes liquids or gels which are spontaneously flammable when exposed to water or the atmosphere, which belong in group H. Examples include liquid or gel filled incendiary ammunition, fuel-air explosive (FAE) devices, and flammable liquid fueled missiles.

K: Article containing both an explosive substance and a toxic chemical agent (1.2K, 1.3K)

L Explosive substance or article containing an explosive substance and presenting a special risk (e.g., due to water-activation or presence of hypergolic liquids, phosphides, or pyrophoric substances) needing isolation of each type (1.1L, 1.2L, 1.3L). Damaged or suspect ammunition of any group belongs in this group.

N: Articles containing only extremely insensitive detonating substances (1.6N).

S: Substance or article so packed or designed that any hazardous effects arising from accidental functioning are limited to the extent that they do not significantly hinder or prohibit fire fighting or other emergency response efforts in the immediate vicinity of the package (1.4S).

Commercial Application[edit]

The largest commercial application of explosives is mining. Whether the mine is on the surface, or buried deep underground, there are oftentimes when the use of either a high or low explosive (detonation or deflagration) in a confined space can be used to liberate a fairly specific sub-volume of a brittle material in a much larger volume of the same or similar material. Normally the material we are talking about in mining, is a ceramic of some kind. If there are mineral deposits where large masses of native metal (usually copper) are present in the ground, using explosives to "liberate" the ore typically doesn't work well.

In Materials Science and Engineering, we occasionally see explosives used in cladding. A thin layer of some material is placed on top of a thick layer of a different material, both layers typically being metal. On top of the thin layer, is placed an explosive. At one end of the layer of explosive, the explosion is initiated. The two metallic layers are forced together at high speed and with great force. The explosion spreads from the initiation site throughout all the explosive. Ideally, we hope to produce a metallurgical bond between the two metallic layers.

As the length of time the shock wave spends at any point is small, we can see mixing of the two metals and their surface chemistries, through some fraction of the depth, and they tend to be mixed in some way. It is possible that some fraction of the surface material from either layer eventually gets ejected when the end of material is reached. Hence, the mass of the now "welded" bilayer, may be less than the sum of the masses of the two initial layers.

There are applications where a shock wave, and electrostatics, can result in high velocity projectiles.


The legality of possessing or using explosives varies by jurisdiction.

The Netherlands[edit]

In the Netherlands, the civil and commercial use of explosives is covered under the Wet explosieven voor civiel gebruik (explosives for civil use Act), in accordance with EU directive nr. 93/15/EEG [10](Dutch). The illegal use of explosives is covered under the Wet Wapens en Munitie (Weapons and Munition Act) [11](Dutch).

United States[edit]

In the United States, these acts are governed by Title 40 of the United States Code, "Importation, Manufacture, Distribution and Storage of Explosive Materials" (18 U.S.C. Chapter 40).[12]

New York[edit]

In the State of New York, health and safety regulations restrict the quantity of black powder a person may store and transport.[13]

See also[edit]

A U.S. Marine rewards his explosive-sniffing dog.


  1. ^ W. W. Porterfield, Inorganic Chemistry: A Unified Approach, 2nd ed., Academic Press, Inc., San Diego, pp. 479-480 (1993).
  2. ^ a b Zel'dovich, Yakov; Kompaneets, A.S. (1960). Theory of Detonation. Academic Press. pp. 208–210. 
  3. ^ Hougen, Olaf A.; Watson, Kenneth; Ragatz, Roland (1954). Chemical Process Principles. John Wiley & Sons. pp. 66–67. 
  4. ^ Anderson, H.V. (1955). Chemical Calculations. McGraw-Hill. p. 206. 
  5. ^ Meyer, Rudolf; Josef Köhler, Axel Homburg (2007). Explosives, 6th Ed. Wiley VCH. ISBN 3-527-31656-6. 
  6. ^ Primary Explosives. Globalsecurity.org. Retrieved on 2010-02-11.
  7. ^ PowerLabs Lead Picrate Synthesis
  8. ^ Cooper, Paul W. (1996). "Chapter 4: Use forms of explosives". Explosives Engineering. Wiley-VCH. pp. 51–66. ISBN 0-471-18636-8. 
  9. ^ Table 12-4.—United Nations Organization Hazard Classes. Tpub.com. Retrieved on 2010-02-11.
  10. ^ http://wetten.overheid.nl/BWBR0006803/geldigheidsdatum_23-12-2013
  11. ^ [1]
  12. ^ Federal Explosives Law and Regulations, U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives
  13. ^ Special provisions relating to black powder


External links[edit]