Finding ways to blow things up has been something of a hobby for humans, and we've become pretty good at it over the centuries.
From humble beginnings with the invention of the first true explosive, gunpowder, humans have refined the technology to such an extent that we can now literally demolish cities in a matter of seconds by harnessing the power of the atom.
But, nukes aside, what are the most potent explosives of all time? If you've ever wondered, well, prepare to have your mind... blown.
What is an explosive?
Before we uncover what some of the world's most powerful explosives are, it might be worth taking a little time to find what exactly an explosive is.
While definitions can vary, an explosive is generally characterized as a reactive substance that contains a great enough amount of potential energy to be able to generate an explosion. Such substances are able to produce enough gas, with a high enough temperature and pressure, and expanding at such a speed, as to cause serious damage to their surroundings on detonation.
When this potential energy is released suddenly (i.e. when it explodes), the process is usually accompanied by the production of light, heat, sound, and pressure.
Explosive tend to come in three fundamental types:
- Mechanical - Those explosives that depend on a physical reaction (like overloading a compressed air cylinder).
- Nuclear - Explosives that rely on a sustained nuclear reaction to produce an enormous amount of energy in a very short time.
- Chemical - The most common form and those will be the primary focus of this article.
Chemical explosives can be further subdivided into one of two kinds:
- Detonating or high explosives (like TNT and dynamite)
- Deflagrating or low explosives (like black or smokeless gunpowder)
The former can also be subdivided into two other types called primary and secondary. The former can be detonated through ignition from sources like a flame, spark, impact, or other means. The latter tend to require a specialized detonator and, in some cases, a supplementary booster to detonate. Some explosives can be both primary and secondary, depending on the conditions in which they are used.
Interestingly, some substances, like pyrotechnics, tend to also fall under the definition of explosive, even when these items do not actually evolve gases.
Due to their inherent nature, explosives are used for a variety of purposes such as demolition works, civil engineering, metal forming, mining, and, of course, warfare. It is important to note that some explosives (mainly primary) can be very volatile and sensitive to the smallest of environmental stimuli such as heat, friction, impact, or shock. If the necessary precautions are not taken to safely store or transport explosives, the results can be, well, catastrophic.
Explosives can come in many different forms including solid, liquid, powder, plastic, or in granular forms or states. They also tend to consist of a number of components, including explosive bases, combustibles, oxygen carriers, antacids, antifreeze, and absorbents.
Explosive bases can be either a liquid or solid, which breaks down very rapidly into gaseous products when exposed to heat or shock — thereby releasing a lot of energy very quickly.
Combustibles combine with oxygen in an explosive to achieve something called oxygen balance. This prevents the formation of toxic fumes (like nitrous oxides) and helps lower the loss of energy through heat.
Oxygen carriers help ensure the complete oxidation of any carbon in an explosive mixture to prevent the formation of carbon monoxide. This is also primarily to prevent the loss of energy through heat formation.
Explosives can also have some other secondary ingredients to increase their "shelf life" (like antacids), absorbents to prevent the explosive degrading or leaking from its storage container, and antifreeze to prevent it from, well, freezing.
What are some of history's largest non-nuclear explosions?
Apart from the sheer awesome power delivered by nuclear weapons, you can also create quite the bang with more conventional explosives. While most explosions are intentional, there have been far too many examples of enormous accidental explosions in history.
Some of the most impressive, and in some cases incredibly tragic, examples in recent history are as follows.
- The Halifax explosion in Nova Scotia - On the morning of the 6th of December 1917, a French cargo ship, the SS Mont-Blanc, exploded spectacularly. The ship was laden with high explosives with a yield of approximately 2.9 kT of TNT. The explosion devastated the Richmond district of Halifax and killed around 2,000 people.
- The RAF Fauld explosion in the UK - On the 27th of November 1944, a stockpile of around 4,000 tonnes of military munitions exploded. leaving a crater 100 feet (30 m) and 250 yards (230 m) across. It is still visible today.
- The Port Chicago disaster in California - Another accidental military munitions explosion occurred on the 17th of July 1944. A cargo ship was being loaded when the munitions suddenly exploded, killing hundreds of sailors and civilians.
- The Oppau explosion, Germany - On the 21st of September 1921, a stockpile of ammonium sulfate and ammonium nitrate fertilizer suddenly exploded. Estimates vary, but around 4,500 tonnes of the stuff went up killing hundreds of people and injuring thousands more.
- The DuPont Powder Mill explosion, Wisconsin - On the 9th of March, 1911, magazines of dynamite and gunpowder spontaneously exploded, destroying most of the nearby town. Apparently, the blast was so strong, its blastwave could be felt more than 130-miles (208 km) away.
- The 2020 Beirut explosion, Lebanon - On the 4th of August 2020, a stockpile of around 2,750 tonnes of confiscated ammonium nitrate exploded following a fire in a warehouse. The blast devastated part of the port of Beirut and killed hundreds of people in the process. The exact cause is still not known.
- Texas City disaster, Texas - On the 16th of April 1947, a stockpile of ammonium nitrate accidentally detonated in Texas City, Texas. About 2,300 tonnes of the stuff was stowed aboard a French registered vessel, the SS Grandchap, at the time. The detonation started a chain reaction of explosions on nearby ships and oil-storage facilities. Almost 600 people were killed in the process.
- The N-1 launch disaster, the former Soviet Union - On the 3rd of July 1969, a Soviet N-1 launch vehicle spectacularly exploded mid-launch. Thousands of tons of rocket fuel and propellent were consumed in the blast sending a massive shockwave and blast for miles around.
- The Evangelos Florakis Naval Base explosion, Cyprus - On the 11th of July 2011, military ammunition and high explosives suddenly blew up. The incident killed several people, including the Commander of the Cypriote Navy, Andreas Ioannides. This remains the worst peacetime military accident ever recorded on the island, with the explosion having an estimated TNT equivalent yield of 480, or so, tonnes.
- The 2015 Tianjin disaster, Port of Tianjin, China - On the 12th of August 2015, a series of massive explosions ripped through a container storage station at the Port of Tianjin. Hundreds of people were killed in the blasts and many more injured.
Sadly, most of the above explosions would never have happened if proper precautions had been taken. But then again, hindsight is always 20:20.
What are some of the world's most potent explosives?
And now on to the main event. Of all the explosives available, what are the most potent ones? Let's find out.
This list is far from exhaustive and is in no particular order. Explosive power will be compared using a metric called relative effectiveness (R.E.) which is compared explosive's relative to that of TNT.
1. Trinitrotoluene (TNT) is an old favorite and still packs a mighty punch
Relative effectiveness: 1 (obviously)
Trinitrotoluene, TNT for short, is one of the best-known explosives in the world. And for good reason — it is excellent for blowing things up.
Typically a pale yellow, solid organic compound, it is an important explosive due to its quick response to an initiator and rapid phase change from solid to hot gases. TNT is completely synthetic, and can not be found in nature.
TNT is formed through stepwise nitration of toluene. It was discovered by German chemist Joseph Wilbrand in 1863 and has found many uses ever since. Despite its highly potent nature, TNT is a relatively safe material to handle as it is relatively insensitive to shock and cannot usually be exploded without a detonator.
TNT is generally used in munitions such as artillery shells and hand grenades, bombs and antitank rockets, etc. In most cases, TNT will tend to be mixed, or blended, with other chemical materials to make it more potent.
One common example is something called amatol, which is a mixture of TNT and ammonium nitrate, but many others also exist.
While TNT is a highly potent explosive, widespread use of it, or poor storage, can also be very harmful to the environment (beyond blowing stuff up, of course). If TNT residue infiltrates the soil, it can seriously damage plants, and animals as well as seriously contaminate groundwater.
If surface and groundwater are exposed to TNT waste, the consequences become catastrophic. For humans, accidental consumption or exposure to TNT (like drinking contaminated water), can lead to some very serious health effects.
For starters, TNT is classified as a human carcinogen. It can lead to tumor growth in the urinary tract and bladder. Contact with it can cause serious skin irritation too.
TNT exposure has also been shown to damage the human immune system, cause anemia in patients, and cause some very serious birth defects for expecting mothers.
Such is the power, and infamy, of TNT that is commonly used as the standard comparison of other explosives and bombs (as we have here), as well as, other things like asteroid impacts or nuclear blasts.
2. Dynamite is still one of the most potent explosives around
Relative effectiveness: 2.5
Dynamite was one of the safest, and most potent, high explosives ever developed. Famously created in 1866 by Alfred B. Nobel, it rapidly became one of the most popular and widely used explosives in the world.
Before the advent of dynamite, the main explosive available was gunpowder. However, gunpowder, while powerful, just couldn't cut it when compared to dynamite. The latter was also safer to handle and use.
A mixture of nitroglycerin, sorbents (like diatomaceous earth), and stabilizers, it is one of the most iconic explosives around. The stabilizers absorb and contain the nitroglycerin, making it much more stable. Today, sawdust or cellulose are often also used instead of diatomaceous earth.
Interestingly, nitroglycerin wasn't invented by Nobel, but he made it much safer to handle and use, greatly reducing the risk of injury of those working with explosives. To trigger the explosive, Nobel also developed a special blasting cap consisting of a wooden cap filled with gunpowder that is triggered with a burning fuse.
Dynamite is the go-to explosive for many different activities, including mining, construction, demolition, and quarrying. It is also the preferred explosive of choice for trenching activities and is occasionally used as a cost-effective booster for ANFO charges (more on those later).
Since we are on the subject, you may be wondering which is better? Dynamite or TNT?
Both are examples of high explosives, but they vary considerably in composition and efficacy. While both are very potent in their own right, TNT is often considered the better of the two.
TNT is more stable, but is generally heavier and usually requires a special initiator to detonate. Dynamite, on the other hand, detonates faster, and it is a more powerful and heavier explosive.
3. Royal Demolition Explosive (RDX) really packs a punch too
Relative effectiveness: 1.6
RDX, formally cyclotrimethylenetrinitramine, and also called cyclonite, hexogen, or T4, is another of the world's most potent explosives. Consisting of a colorless, odorless, and tasteless (yes that is a metric) organic compound, it is classified as a nitroamine which is more energetic than TNT.
It was first developed by Friedrich Henning in 1898 but wasn't used widely until the outbreak of WW2. RDX is relatively safe and inexpensive to mass-produce. It is a hard, white, crystalline solid that is insoluble in water and only slightly soluble in some other solvents.
Detonation can be achieved using percussion-type blasting caps.
Widely used during the Second World War, it is still a very popular explosive material today. One of the first plastic explosives, RDX charges were famously part of the specially designed bombs used by the "Dambusters" during their raid on German dams.
Apart from being able to blow things up, RDX is also very toxic. Accidental ingestion has been shown to result in convulsions and can prove fatal if a high enough dose is taken.
RDX is also thought to be a potential carcinogen and is highly toxic to earthworms and plants if released accidentally into the environment.
4. Pentaerythritol tetranitrate (PETN) is another incredibly potent explosive
Relative effectiveness: 1.66
PETN, or pentaerythritol tetranitrate, to give it its full name, is yet another of the world's most powerful high explosives. Belonging to the same family of chemical explosives as nitroglycerin and nitrocellulose, it is more stable and can be stored for longer periods than the other two.
PETN has various uses, including as a component in other explosive compounds. It is very sensitive to percussion-type triggers and was first produced in 1894 by Rheinisch-Westfälische Sprengstoff A.G., and was later introduced as a commercial explosive after the First World War.
Generally, PETN is created in powder form but by adding plasticizer and nitrocellulose, PETN can be manufactured in plasticized sheet form.
It has incredible shattering force and efficiency.
PETN is often combined with other explosives like TNT to make something called pentolite. This is the preferred explosive for things like grenades, artillery shells, and shaped-charged warheads (like bazooka-type anti-tank projectiles).
Another famous explosive, Semtex plastic explosive, is formed by mixing PETN with RDX. Because it is difficult to detect in a sealed container, and can be molded into different shapes, it is also the explosive of choice for many terrorists.
Like other explosives, PETN’s effects on human health can be very serious. Exposure to even a small amount of PETN results in a decline in blood pressure (in fact it has been used to treat high blood pressure in the past), and higher doses of PETN can cause convulsion and dyspnea.
5. Triacetone triperoxide (TATP) isn't called the "Mother of Satan" for nothing
Relative effectiveness: Approx. 0.8 (Roughly 80% that of TNT)
TATP, or triacetone triperoxide, is another important, and highly potent primary high explosive. Produced by reacting acetone and hydrogen peroxide, TATP is a semi-stable crystalline solid that is extremely sensitive to impact, friction, static electricity, and heat.
TATP is widely called as “Mother of Satan”. TATP can be made from basic materials bought over-the-counter and so is often used to make inexpensive improvised explosives. For this reason, it has become very popular with terrorist groups and guerilla fighters around the world.
TATP is also hard to detect by explosive scanners as it does not contain any nitrogen. This is often the key marker for other homemade bombs, especially the so-called, fertilizer bombs.
Unlike other bombs, the reason for TATP's potent nature has puzzled scientists for many years. It can be made at room temperature with no additional energy input required from things like flames.
That is, until 2005, when a potential reason was finally discovered.
"Although the gas is at room temperature, it has the same density as the solid, and four times as many molecules, so it has 200 times the pressure of the surrounding air," according to Ehud Keinan, a chemist at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, who released a study on TATP in 2005.
6. ONC might be the world's most potent explosive
Relative effectiveness 2.38
Octanitrocubane (ONC) might just be the world's most potent non-nuclear explosive developed to date. First synthesized in 1999 by Philip Eaton and Mao-Xi Zhang at the University of Chicago, this explosive is shockingly "blowy-uppy".
According to its creators, ONC appears to have almost 2.5 times the explosive power of an equivalent weight of TNT.
Its power comes from the unusual crystalline structure of the material. The carbon atoms are arranged in a cube-shape, called cubane, that forces them to align at 90 degrees to one another.
For reference, carbon generally likes to be at around 109.5 degrees. This compression to a 90-degree orientation causes increased potential energy in the molecule due to something called "angle strain“. You can liken this to a kind of atomic-bond level spring, so when allowed to return to their preferred angle (i.e. during detonation), a lot of energy is expelled.
Interestingly, prior to cubane's synthesis in 1964, this orientation of carbon atoms was thought to be too energetically unfavorable to create.
ONC also has a lot of nitro groups in its structure, and the creation of stable carbon and nitrogen molecules during detonation adds extra blasting power to the explosive. According to some calculations, 12 molecules of gas are released for every 1 molecule of ONC.
This creates an enormously powerful shock wave.
7. HMX (octogen) gives you a lot of bang for your buck
Relative effectiveness: 1.7 (grade B)
HMX, also known as octogen, is another of the world's most potent explosives. A form of nitroamine chemical explosive, HMX is relatively insensitive and temperature-stable, and safe to store and transport.
This powerful explosive can be used for both military and civilian, commercial end products. It was first synthesized in the 1930s and has since been used for things like the detonator in nuclear weapons, polymer-bonded explosives, and as a solid rocket propellant.
It can also be used to punch holes through steel casings in oil and gas wells. HMX has also been used in space by the Hayabusa2 space probe to excavate a hole in an asteroid for analysis.
HMX is chemically related to RDX, it is fairly complex to synthesize usually using a process known as the Bachmann Process.
And that, explosive enthusiasts, is your lot for today. These are but some of the most potent explosives ever developed by humans. They have proven their power over the years, and this is unlikely to change much in the years to come.
After all, if it isn't broken why fix it?
There are some other interesting high-explosives in the works, like HNC, and DDF, but these are primarily experimental or not used in end product explosives exclusively. Watch this, space.