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Three Common High Explosives and Their Properties

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What are High Explosives?

High Explosives have powerful explosive properties, exploding at a supersonic level. They produce an explosion with a velocity ranging from 3000 to 9000 meters per second. The chemicals that make up high explosives decompose extremely quickly.

When initiated by a blast or shock, the material directly decomposes, and an explosion happens almost instantaneously by chemical reaction.


High explosives are categorized into two types:

Primary and secondary explosives.

Primary explosives are generally heat-sensitive, and can react quickly and devastatingly to static electricity. For some primary explosives, almost any kind of impact no matter how slight, or even friction can set them off. In extreme cases, some unstable primary explosives like nitroglycerine go as far as being untouchable due to their sensitivity.

Secondary explosives are less reactive to shock and friction than primary explosives, which make them less dangerous and easier to handle.. They are paired with primary explosives, for ignition when utilized.

Done in this manner, the explosion can be calculated and controlled to avoid mishap.

These practical explosives are used in mining sites, the military and in demolition applications, to name a few.

Diagram of a Dynamite


Types of High Explosives

1. Dynamite

This type of explosive material made of sawdust or diatomaceous earth as an absorbent and nitroglycerin as the explosive agent. It commonly sold in the shape of sticks, and is used with a line of fuse, with a primary explosive at the end acting as its charge, called a 'blasting cap'.

History, Uses, and Properties


Dynamite was invented by the chemist Alfred Nobel in Germany. The product, originally called 'Nobel's Blasting Powder' was patented in both England and Sweden on 1867.

Since its invention, dynamite has been employed in mining, construction, and demolition. It quickly gave rise to the faster development of industry and easier labor, especially in constructing railways and clearing mine-shafts.


Dynamite was also used in warfare. Being classified as a high explosive, it was used prior to the First World was as a highly effective and lethal explosive.
Nobel became notorious for his invention of dynamite. It was once said that Nobel would go down in history as a peddler of death for the many lives that were lost either accidentally, or during times of civil strife, from the use of dynamite.


The properties of dynamite are primarily three parts: Nitroglycerin, which acts as its explosive agent, an absorbent, mostly one part of diatomaceous earth, and a small amount of sodium carbonate.

Older kinds of dynamite incorporated sawdust as an absorbent. Mixing the nitroglycerin with absorbents made if safer to transport, since it greatly reduced the shock sensitivity. Older types dynamite have a tendency to 'sweat' overtime, meaning that nitroglycerin mixed with the absorbent starts to leak out of and crystallize around the wrapper. This makes the dynamite highly dangerous.

Story of Dynamite

TNT Powder


2. Trinitrotoluene

Trinitrotoluene, most commonly shortened to TNT, is a solid, yellow-colored chemical compound. It is commonly used as a reagent in chemical synthesis and as an explosive material. Most often confused as being similar to dynamite, TNT is a chemical compound, while dynamite is a mixture of nitroglycerin and an absorbent agent such as sawdust.

History, Uses, and Properties

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TNT was invented by the German chemist Joseph Wilbrand in 1863. The original purpose of TNT was its use as a yellow dye. The use of TNT as an explosive came many years later, mainly due to the difficulty of detonating TNT, and because it was less powerful than other explosives at that time.



TNT is a comparatively insensitive explosive which enabled it to be poured while in liquid form into shell cases. The earliest use of TNT as a military explosive was during 1902, when the Germans used it as a filling for artillery shells. These TNT-filled armor-piercing shells would explode after penetrating the armor of the target.

TNT is still widely used by the military and by various construction companies worldwide. It is valued for general use because of its safety and stability. TNT is insensitive to shock as well as friction, which allows it to be transported and used without much risk for accidental detonation.

TNT is also water-resistant, which allows it to be used in wet environments. Radford Army Ammunition Plant currently produces the majority of TNT used by the United States Military. TNT is also employed for use in demolitions and clearing away large debris in building foundations.


The production of TNT is achieved in three steps. It begins with the nitrated toluene, which is mixed with sulfuric and nitric acid to produce mono-nitrotoluene or MNT. The MNT is then separated and re-nitrated to produce dinitrotoluene or DNT.

Finally, the DNT is nitrated into trinitrotoluene or TNT by the use of an anhydrous mix of nitric acid and oleum. As a finishing touch, the TNT is then stabilized by treating it with an aqueous sodium sulfate solution. This removes the less stable isomers of TNT, making it more stable for use.



TNT is a toxic chemical, and skin contact has been known to cause skin irritation, making the skin appear yellow-orange in color. Prolonged exposure to TNT can impair normal liver function and cause anemia, spleen enlargement, as well as affect male fertility.

Breathing TNT is greatly harmful to the immune system. It is known as a carcinogen, and oral intake of TNT produces urine which is red in color, due to its chemical breakdown in the body.


3. Tovex

A water gel explosive, also known as Trenchrite, Seismogel, or Seismopac, is an alternative to traditional dynamite. It's lower toxicity and safer manufacture has made it the optimum replacement for dynamite. Trovex has been adopted for widespread use, with as much as 80% international oil companies using it for seismic exploration.

History, Uses, and Properties


E.I. du Pont de Nemours and Company, Inc. first developed Tovex in the 1960s The first attempts at making Torvex was by mixing pelletized TNT with aqueous gels. It was commercially successful, but proved to have problems mainly with oxygen balance and the cost of production. In the late 1973, the formula was perfected by replacing TNT with methyl ammonium nitrate, thus allowing Tovex to replace nitroglycerin-based dynamites.



The most common uses of Tovex is in construction, mining, tunneling, avalanche rescue, and seismic exploration. Tovex is the only explosive developed that has not been used as an instrument of warfare.


The chemical properties of Tovex is a 50/50 aqueous solution of ammonium nitrate and methylammonium nitrate. Sensitized fluids and other ingredients such as sodium nitrate, aluminum, and coal are added to make some of the product grades cap sensitive. Thickening agents are sometimes used to enhance water resistance by acting as crystal modifiers.

Conclusion and Summary

High explosives are most commonly employed in war. High explosive weapons are highly destructive instruments which strike fear in the minds of many people, especially over the past few decades.

But high explosives are not themselves, instruments of evil.

When used for constructive purposes, high explosives benefit civilizations and the world at large by allowing faster methods of building tunnels, buildings, and roads. There are hundreds of beneficial applications for high explosives -it is up to governments and societies as a whole to ensure they are used peacefully and responsibily.


Gino Nguyen on March 13, 2015:

Hello there ! I would like to asking you any import around the oversea like hawai Costa Rica or cook island for test topping ling

. on March 25, 2013:

No they aren't.

Chemistrybuster on March 03, 2013:

Just to let you know, Dynamite and 2,4,6-Trinitroluene (otherwise known as TNT) are the same thing

Calum on January 06, 2012:

Great Hub! Really well done. Just wanted to ask if I could reference some of the information here for a report I am writing. Would be a great help as it contains some really useful information. However, I would also need to know the year in which this was written? Thank you very much!

HOME on September 07, 2011:


HOME on September 07, 2011:


johnsams (author) on June 13, 2010:

Hello ptosis, yeah its absurd when TSA does stuff like this but I think we should look at the situation in this way wherein whatever they are trying to do is to make sure that everyone remains safe.

ptosis from Arizona on May 24, 2010:

I don't understand why the shoe bomber tried to light up Pentaerythritol Tetranitrate, (PETN) - when it's hard to light up in the first place. I think these comical attempts are for the sole reason of shutting down air travel via TSA ridiculous restrictions. - I had a fkg TSA ask me to take of my scarf to go though a metal detector - whatta idiot. As if that is going to make air travel safer. It's so stupid I wrote about the next idiotic step with TSA

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