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Why PETN explosive is hard to detect

Ian Sample
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White death: The white powder is popular with extremists because it is available on the black market and very difficult to detect at airport checkpoints. — Photo: Reuters
White death: The white powder is popular with extremists because it is available on the black market and very difficult to detect at airport checkpoints. — Photo: Reuters

What is PETN? Pentaerythritol trinitrate is an extremely powerful plastic explosive. The white powder is popular with extremists because it is available on the black market and very difficult to detect at airport checkpoints.

Many countries have tight restrictions on the purchase of PETN, which can be bought in powder form or in thin plastic sheets, but it can also be made from chemicals available over the counter. PETN is used legally by the military and in industries such as mining, where it is used in detonation fuses. PETN is mixed with other chemicals to make Semtex.

How does it work? As explosives go, PETN is reasonably stable.

Detonation

The substance is usually detonated by a secondary device that produces heat or a shockwave. PETN is difficult to detonate with a naked flame, as demonstrated by the shoe bomber Richard Reid, who tried to bring down an American Airlines flight in 2001 with PETN concealed in one of his boots. More often, a blasting cap is used to set it off.

Why is it hard to detect? PETN is non-metallic so it does not show up in x-ray machines.

Because it is so energetic, only small amounts of the explosive are used, and these can easily be hidden on the body or in electrical equipment. PETN—based bombs can be detected by the electrical wiring and detonators that accompany them, but there are ways around this. If the bomb is built into electrical equipment, such as a printer, it can easily be missed amid the device's own wiring and components.

How can PETN be detected? Some airports have introduced advanced security measures that “sniff” passengers for explosives or analyse swabs of their clothing and belongings, all of which can carry minute residues of explosives if the person has handled them. There is no guarantee that these would catch a PETN bomb, especially if it were carried in a sealed container.

No chemicals

Pure PETN releases little in the way of chemicals that can be picked up by detectors, so commercial manufacturers spike it with “taggants” to make them easier to sniff out. Homemade PETN can be harder to pick up because it does not contain these chemicals. Researchers at the Centre of Excellence in Explosives Detection, Mitigation, Response and Characterisation at the University of Rhode Island have detected traces of PETN in human hair, but the technique is not used at airports. — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2010


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