Wednesday, June 27, 2012


I saw that a jury convicted a Saudi student of planning a terrorist attack in Texas (alliterative headline for the ensuing civil suit if he had set off the TNP-based bomb: "Texas terror TNP torts today").  From June 27, 2012 USA Today:

Khalid Ali-M Aldawasari, who was legally in the U.S. on a student visa, was arrested in February 2011 after federal agents secretly searched his apartment near Texas Tech University in Lubbock and found bomb-making chemicals, wiring, a hazmat suit and clocks.
Authorities also discovered Aldawsari's journal, handwritten in Arabic, in which he wrote he'd been planning a terror attack in the U.S. for years and that it was "time for jihad," or holy war, court documents show.
Part of what led the FBI to investigate, including using one of those secret searches that caused panty-twisting for many people after passage of the PATRIOT Act, was that he ordered $435 of TNP from a chemical supply house, Carolina Biological Supply, who immediately informed the FBI that the order was suspicious.
Separately, Con-way Freight, the shipping company, notified Lubbock police and the FBI the same day with similar suspicions because it appeared the order wasn't intended for commercial use. 
Congratulations to both companies for noticing the suspicious nature of the order, and informing the FBI.  But what is TNP?  I did not recognize the acronym--until I looked it up, and discovered it was a chemical that I know well, 2,4,6-trinitrophenol, under its older name, picric acid.  If you took organic chemistry in college (or were just a hopeless explosives nerd, as I was in high school), you will recognize from the IUPAC name that it is a close relative of TNT, but with phenol instead of tolulene as the aromatic ring to which the nitro groups are attached.

What made picric acid so fascinating to me long ago was that while a decent high explosive in its own right, when placed in contact with most metals, it produces an even more unstable salt--an interesting way to render common objects dangerous.


  1. While in high school, doing an internship in a medical research lab, I used the stuff. It was in crystalline form in 1kg or so jars with no warning labels. The bosses did mention that dropping it wasn't a good idea, since it had been used in artillery shells in WW-I.

  2. When I was the chem. lab assistant in my HS junior year, there was a large jar of the picric acid on one of the stockroom shelves. Clearly not in an earthquake zone: there was also a bottle of perchloric acid in a battery jar on a top shelf. And a lecture bottle of HCl under the sink, with corrosion around the valve.