Trinitrotoluene (TNT): Synthesis, Structure & Formula

Instructor: Artem Cheprasov

Artem has a doctor of veterinary medicine degree.

This lesson goes over the synthesis, structure, and formula of trinitrotoluene. While the name and lesson title sound intimidating, by the end of this lesson all three will be tied in together in an easy manner.

What Is TNT?

While you may know it as an explosive packed into red sticks, TNT or trinitrotoluene had nothing to do with explosives nor the color red when it was first made in 1863. It was actually manufactured and used as a yellow dye for almost 30 years before it became the explosive of choice for decades to come.

Let's learn more about how TNT can be made as well as what its structure and formula are in this lesson.


Unless you want to end up on some government agency's watch list, it's probably best to avoid trying to cook up some TNT of your own! But the basics of its manufacture go something like this. A compound called toluene is mixed with nitric acid and sulfuric acid and is passed through a series of three reactors running at elevated temperatures. What comes out of the third reaction is a crude version of TNT, since it contains some contaminants from all of the prior reactions.

These contaminants are removed by first washing the crude TNT with water. This washed TNT is then mixed with a solution of sodium sulfite in order to remove additional contaminants. The TNT is then melted and passed through hot dryers to get rid of most of the water. The end result is a solid product that's ready for use.

Structure & Formula

TNT's structure is kind of funky but not that difficult to remember. It's shown in an image in this lesson. The first thing that probably grabs your attention is the six sided ring smack in the middle of this structure. This ring is called a benzene ring. The benzene ring has four different chemical groups attached to it.

A benzene ring with a methyl group, or just a simple -CH3 group is representative of toluene, which was used to build TNT in the prior reaction. That's why another name for toluene is methylbenzene.

Other than the methyl group, there are three additional identical groups attached to the benzene ring. Each of these three groups is called a nitro group, which is represented by -NO2. They are there thanks in part to the nitric acid used in our synthesis.

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