A Song of Lab Coats and HMX

Or: How I Lost My Lucky Lab Coat


When I was but a callow youth, I was supremely interested in explosives and explosions, like all young children should be.

The difference was that I had access to the chemicals and equipment needed to actually go ahead and make these explosions (and explosives) myself.


I started off with small things, grinding up sparklers and compressing the resultant powder into charges, which acted more like flares or rockets than actual explosives.

Incendiaries were fun too, like poor man’s napalm (Styrofoam dissolved in two-stroke fuel), then proper napalm (No, I’m not telling you how to make this stuff) and some rather exotic white phosphorous/napalm derivatives that I never actually had the courage to test out.

Thermite was great fun too, just watch (or don’t watch, preferably) the UV emissions. …You know, I never got around to making those thermite grenades… A project for another time, I guess!


Next up was good old black powder. It’s easy enough to find recipes on the web for this, and fun to play with too. Uncontained it burns quickly rather than exploding, and makes a good show when grains of it are mixed with various metals and metal salts for colour. Fireworks! Sadly (or luckily) I used up most of my stock making pretty colours.

Unsatisfied with the lack of BOOM in my life, I decided that the next best thing to do was making ANFO (ammonium nitrate fuel oil mix). This is a general-purpose and mining explosive, since it’s easily handled and very stable, with the caveat that the ammonium nitrate absorbs water like no-one’s business and soon becomes less than efficient as an explosive.

Unable to get my hands on pure ammonium nitrate (this was a very good thing), I settled on the highest nitrate concentration fertiliser in my family’s garden shed, ground it up and mixed it with enough kerosene to hold it together in a solid mass, and took a magnesium taper to it. To my dissatisfaction, it just burnt. Very violently, but it only just burnt!

Five seconds of staring at flames merrily burning away in a fire pit later, I realised that in my enthusiasm I had forgotten that the best high-explosives are actually quite stable and need a blasting cap or similar sharp shock to detonate. Whoops.

I then had the bright idea to think that nitroglycerin would make a great detonator, given how unstable it was! Half a second later I slapped myself for getting such a terrible idea and made myself some mercuric fulminate.


Shit started getting real right about now. I looked up detonation velocities, compound and plasticiser densities and brisance values, and decided that RDX (the main ingredient of C4) was the best non-experimental explosive that was in my capacity to make. We may have differing definitions or values of ‘best’.

I didn’t have much equipment to my name, but it was enough to start myself off with TNT production, which is the pretty little molecule below. I made about 25g of the stuff as a test, and it detonated with a satisfying CHOOM noise when I set it off with the fulminate.




I didn’t have any of the apparatus I actually needed to confirm that I had made TNT, or its purity, or my eventual yield – the fact that it exploded was enough for me, which in hindsight was terrible scientific method.

Satisfied with my ability to not stuff up a basic nitration reaction, I proceeded straight to RDX manufacture. It is terrifyingly easy. 25g in a single reaction is simple, quick, and relatively cheap to boot.

The resultant stick of plastic explosive (after processing) cut a satisfyingly large gouge out of a big tree stump when detonated as a cutting charge.


Flushed with success, in my youthful idiocy I decided to do a simple linear scaling up of the reaction, all the way up to 500g. This is how I lost my lucky lab coat.


The reaction went runaway on me, the stoichiometry shifted to favour the production of HMX (which gram for gram is one of the most powerful conventional explosives in the world), and there was still enough reagent concentration that even when dumped into the too small ice bath the mix spontaneously exploded, sending acid and glass shards and ice water everywhere. It was mainly acid and glass shards.

Everywhere also included my left shoulder, which was not as protected as my torso or face, and I ended up with three large shards of my ice bath container embedded in it. They also had a decent amount of acid still on them, which probably had the side effect of turning a small portion of my body into high explosive. In hindsight, THIS WAS TOTALLY FUCKIN’ METAL.


The moral of the story is – If an explosive is in any sort of container, it becomes a fragmentation weapon. If you can see a fragmentation weapon, it can kill you.

The second moral is – Make sure you know what secondary compounds your reaction makes, because they are potentially more explosive than your desired product, and you should treat them nicely.


Also: I’m super hoping that ASIO/NSA/Other national intelligence agencies’ datamining networks haven’t flagged this post as ULTRA TERRORIST DEFCON NEGATIVE FIFTEEN GORILLION. If you spooks are reading though, I have some interesting ETC-APFSDS infantry weapon concepts to bounce off your weapons R&D guys.


Stay angry my friends.

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