December 29, 2009
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."
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