Bigger bang theory: teach atoms new tricks to beef up explosives

Simon Roberts/Gallery Stock By David Hambling BLEARY-EYED, you acknowledge the coffee machine announcing the arrival of the morning brew. You apologise to the fridge door as you fumble for the milk. Narrowly avoiding the salt, you locate the sugar on the counter. Energy required. One spoonful or two? BOOM! The whole lot goes up. It’s easy to forget that sugar can be an explosive. In fact, it’s four times more powerful weight for weight than TNT. Forgetfulness here can have tragic consequences. In 2008, finely powdered sugar ignited at a refinery in Savannah, Georgia, causing a blast that claimed 14 lives. Fortunately, under normal circumstances it takes a lot to make sugar explode. Not so nitroglycerin, the explosive favoured by early safe-crackers: it is notoriously unstable, going sky-high at the slightest shock. An ideal explosive – one with power, but that can also be easily controlled – lies somewhere in the middle. It would store a lot of energy in its chemical bonds, releasing it easily, but not too easily. Therein lies a problem. With everyone from miners to the military to missions to Mars seeking more bang for their buck,
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