Fire and Explosion: When Expertise Matters

TASA ID: 4701

A 14-year old was accused of endangerment by exploding an incendiary device.  An incendiary device is a bomb that is designed to start fires.  The teenager learned how to create this device while surfing the internet - the instructions told how to build THE WORKS BOMB by using aluminum foil, a commercial toilet cleaner, and an emptied soda bottle.

The teenager’s behavior was immature and potentially dangerous, but fortunately, it took place in a large open space with no one else in attendance; therefore, no one was injured.  However, the police were alerted and arrested the young perpetrator on the spot.

The chemistry and physics of THE WORKS BOMB is straightforward - the toilet cleaner has a high concentration of hydrochloric acid.  The acid reacts with aluminum to release hydrogen gas.  The gas builds up pressure in a closed container until the pressure exceeds the tensile limit of the plastic bottle and ruptures the container with a loud noise that sounds somewhat like a bomb explosion.

The key element in the defense of this criminal case was to recognize that although the device was potentially dangerous, in that it had suddenly released high velocity fragments of the plastic bottle, it was not an explosive in the technical-chemical sense of the term.

To the technical consultant, there were two questions to be answered: (1) was the device a bomb? and (2) was the device incendiary?  The answers were both NO.  To a chemist, a bomb is a device that contains materials that are unstable or react chemically to release huge amounts of energy when they are properly initiated.  Thus, for example, nitroglycerin in dynamite or TNT in military shells can be used to create bombs.  In this context; however, the energy release was the result of gas pressure – not chemistry.

Concerning the claim of an incendiary device, there was no evidence of a fire.  To be sure, hydrogen gas is potentially flammable when an ignition source is also available, but the latter was not present in the case at hand -- hence the device was not incendiary.

The young defendant was found guilty only of a misdemeanor and sentenced to six-months of community service.


This article discusses issues of general interest and does not give any specific legal or business advice pertaining to any specific circumstances.  Before acting upon any of its information, you should obtain appropriate advice from a lawyer or other qualified professional.

This article may not be duplicated, altered, distributed, saved, incorporated into another document or website, or otherwise modified without the permission of TASA.

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Tasa ID4701

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