Explosives experiment

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Oxidation is the loss of electrons. Oxidation occurs when gunpowder explodes, it contains carbon, sulphur and potassium nitrate. The carbon and sulphur are both oxidised to form gases. The potassium nitrate carries oxygen, meaning it is an oxidising agent and gunpowder carries it’s own oxygen supply for the reactions. This makes the explosion very powerful as the oxygen is available as soon as the gunpowder is ignited.

C(s) + O2(g)  CO2(g)

The carbon gains oxygen and it’s oxidation number increases from 0 to +4 making CO2. Oxidation means there is a faster reaction as there are oxygen molecules to react with. The more oxygen molecules the more violent the reaction.


Gunpowder was the first explosive used, it was a good explosive as it contained it’s own oxygen supply. It was made of carbon, sulphur and potassium nitrate (the oxidiser). However it produced large quantities of white smoke so wasn’t effective as a weapon as it obscured the opposition.

Cellulose nitrate was then produced by reacting cellulose with nitric acid and sulphuric acid. This did not produce smoke when it exploded so the visibility on battlefields was improved. A fuse wasn’t needed as cellulose nitrate could be ignited by percussion, and larger quantities could be used. To use as an explosive cellulose trinitrate and nitro-glycerine were mixed together. Propanone was then used to produce a jelly-like substance out of the mixture. This jelly can be squeezed through holes to produce cords which is why it is called a propellant.

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The next explosive produced was nitro-glycerine which is produced by heating glycerine with concentrated nitric acid using sulphuric acid as a catalyst. The OH groups found in the glycerine are converted into nitrate groups, this is a nitration reaction. This was a very effective and powerful explosive, however, it was very unstable, meaning it was dangerous. To make it stable nitro-glycerine was mixed with kieselguhr, an inert substance. This was much more effective, as it could now only be ignited deliberately. It could be shaped into sticks that was called Dynamite 1, gunpowder was used to give out energy ...

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