December 29, 2009

PETN: The powder at the center of airline terror alert

Posted: 02:58 PM ET

(CNN) - The Christmas Day airline terror alert has brought focus on PETN, a substance till now largely unknown to the public.

The white powder is said to be central to the alleged plot by Umar Farouk AbdulMutallab to bring down a passenger aircraft, carrying 300 passengers, as it prepared to land in Detroit. But just what is PETN?

What does PETN look like?

Pentaerythritol tetranitrate, to give it its full name, is a fine white powder that resembles sugar or salt. It does not compress down very well.

How easy is to obtain?

The core chemical in PETN is hard to make or get your hands on.

How volatile is PETN?

Not very. Although it is an explosive, you have to hammer it or ignite it to make it go off. And since it is not volatile, it is perfect for a terrorist on a long haul flight.

As Sidney Alford, a UK explosives expert, explained to CNN's senior international correspondent Nic Robertson: "It wouldn't go off accidentally. If I was carrying a pocketful of just neat powder in my pocket, it blowing up would be the last of my worries."


Filed under: Crime • Larry King Live • Terrorism

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Dodie   December 29th, 2009 3:45 pm ET

Thank you CNN for providing information on PETN.

A. Smith, Oregon   December 29th, 2009 5:12 pm ET

Petn is easy to get and readily available in ten's of thousands of locations around the world. Petn is commonly used as filler in DetCord, also refered to as PrimaCord which is routinely used by road construction firms and open pit mining operations around the world to use as a high bursting detonator for ammonium nitrate fuel oil based charges buried in the proposed mining ledge or road bed.

Any bomb sniffing dog trained to target Nitrate based explosives (99% are Nitrogen based) would find it. All bomb testing swab systems commonly found at American airports would also find it.

Like many nitro based stable fillers, it commonly takes mercury fulminate commonly known as a blasting cap to set Petn off. Simply burning Petn with a match normally results in some rather toxic fumes and fireworks without an explosion. Even the typical minimum wage paid Airport screener would immediately spot a blasting cap if that was scanned.

A. Smith, Oregon   December 29th, 2009 5:19 pm ET

If you want to see Petn in action, watch film of operations in Afghanistan using 100 yards of PrimaCord shot out in front of the vehicles and then exploded to detonate any and all mines in that area.

Wouldn't it be ironic if the Petn being used by these bombers, came from stolen PrimaCord found in US trucks along the Pakistan border which were supplying the troops in Afghanistan?

Dodie   December 30th, 2009 1:02 am ET

A. Smith, Oregon
So you think the probability of obtaining this PETN came from stolen PrimaCord found in US trucks along the Pakistan border! Now that is what I call sad. It certainly would not be the first time and I am sure, not the last! Could one use a firecracker or cherry bomb to set it off. The Cherry bomb has quite a punch and common in many countries around the world. Yikes, Petn is very explosive. Youtube has many Petn explosions now.

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