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Pentaerythritol Tetranitrate (PETN)

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PETN - Chemical Compound

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PETN is a well-known chemical compound that is often used in making explosives. The PETN full form is pentaerythritol tetranitrate. It is an organic compound that belongs to the family of nitrocellulose and nitroglycerin. In addition to being an explosive compound, it also functions as a vasodilator and is a common treatment for heart conditions like angina.

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History of PETN

The patent for PETN goes to Rheinisch-Westfälische Sprengstoff A.G. of Cologne, Germany. They were the first company in 1894 to prepare pentaerythritol tetranitrate. PETN commercial production started in 1912 for the improved variant in 1912. The German military force used PETN in world war I. The military forces used their efficiency and shattering forces in both civilian and military applications.


A single detonator can control PETN. Also, the military forces used blasting caps and a detonating fuse known as Primacord to initiate a series of detonations. It was also used in World War II in the MG FF/M type of autocannons, mine shells, and other weaponry by the Luftwaffe.


The Chemical Process for the Production of PETN

PETN is an organic compound containing nitrogen. It is similar to nitrocellulose and nitroglycerin. The chemical formula for PETN is C5H8N4O12. PETN is prepared by the reaction of nitric acid with pentaerythritol (C5H12O4). Pentaerythritol is a commonly used alcohol in varnishes and paints. The reaction takes place in chilled conditions so that PETN can precipitate out.


After its precipitation, PETN is filtered, washed, dried, and undergoes recrystallization resulting in a colorless crystalline material. PETN is stored in a mixture of alcohol and water.


Use of PETN in Weaponry

As stated earlier, PETN is a highly explosive organic compound belonging to the same group of nitroglycerine and nitrocellulose. It is widely used in weaponry by different countries and terrorist organizations. The first use of PETN in wars dates back to World War I. It was also used in World War II.


In grenades, PETN is mixed with trinitrotoluene (TNT) to form a highly explosive, military-grade mixture called Pentolite. Pentolite is also used in projectile artillery, shaped-charge warheads, etc. One such shaped-charge warhead is used in the old-bazooka-type antitank weapon that was used in World War II. PETN is also mixed with RDX in appropriate solvents to form a highly explosive mixture. Such a plastic explosive mixture is called a Semtex.


Use of PETN Explosive by Terrorists

Several terrorist organizations around the world value PETN highly. They use PETN directly in bombs or a mixture with other explosives. One such mixture that terrorists often use is the Semtex mixture. There are certain properties of PETN that these terrorist organizations love to make use of. These properties are its ability to fit or mold into unusual shapes and packages, high explosive power, and problems in its detection by X-rays or related conventional equipment.


For example, in 1988, a terrorist organization used a cassette recorder filled with the Semtex mixture to bring down a civilian airplane in the infamous Lockerbie bombing. The shoe bombers and the underwear bombers belonging to 2001 and 2009 respectively used a similar mixture in their clothing. However, they failed to bring down the airliners since they could not ignite the mixture using conventional match flames or chemical initiation processes.


Previously electrical-based detonators were easily detected in any airport screening process. However, if the detonators are so designed as a part of any electronic appliances, they might be passed along with the appliances. Such an approach was taken in the cargo-plane bombing that took place in 2010. In this bombing, the terrorist organization used toner cartridges and computer printers filled with PETN. However, such an intelligent attempt failed because the security agencies got to know about such an approach on prior notice due to human intelligence.


Medical Use of PETN

Humans did not only comply with the use of PETN as an explosive. It has also been used as a medicine for several heart ailments like angina pectoris. PETN functions as a vasodilator while treating heart diseases. Moreover, it also triggers the release of nitric oxide gas in our bodies. Nitric oxide is a major signaling compound in our body. Therefore, PETN is used to trigger several cellular signaling processes involving nitric oxide.

For example, Lentonitrat, a commonly used heart medicine, is mainly composed of PETN.

FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions)

1. How is PETN Produced in the Laboratory, and What are Its Chemical Properties?

Ans: PETN stands for pentaerythritol tetranitrate. It is a complex organic compound containing nitrogen. Therefore, it belongs to the same family of nitrocellulose and nitroglycerin. Both these compounds are highly explosive in nature. Therefore, PETN also shows high explosive properties. PETN is produced by the chemical reaction between nitric acid and the alcohol pentaerythritol. The alcohol is commonly used in different varnishes and paints. Since the reaction is exothermic, it is carried out in chilled conditions.


During the reaction, PETN is formed as a precipitate. It is precipitated out and filtered to remove any debris. After that, PETN is washed and dried. It is then subjected to a recrystallization process. The PETN crystals are then stored in a mixture of water and alcohol. This step is feasible because it is non-reactive with water. Moreover, keeping it in cold condition keeps it away from its ignition point.

2. What are the Uses of PETN?

Ans: PETN is majorly used as an explosive by different countries and several terrorist organizations. It can be directly used as an explosive or as a mixture with other explosives like TNT. The mixture of PETN with TNT is called Pentolite. It is also mixed with RDX in an appropriate solvent to form the Semtex mixture. PETN is more stable than nitrocellulose and nitroglycerin.


The first use of PETN dates back to world war I. The German military forces used it. PETN was also used in World War II in projectile artillery and shaped-charge warheads. Several terrorist organizations use PETN directly or as a mixture, like the Semtex mixture. They loved this compound because of its explosive nature, ability to be molded and fixed into different shapes and packages, and difficulty to detect by conventional X-ray-based methods. There are numerous reported terrorist attacks and attempts that used PETN.