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What is Trinitrotoluene? - Uses, History & Properties

Instructor: Artem Cheprasov

Artem has a doctor of veterinary medicine degree.

This lesson goes over a very famous chemical compound called trinitrotoluene. You'll learn about its history and various uses, as well as numerous chemical and physical properties.

What Is Trinitrotoluene?

If you've seen one too many Wile E. Coyote cartoons, you would've seen one too many inappropriate uses of trinitrotoluene, also known as 2,4,6-Trinitrotoluene, or more simply and famously as TNT. We'll stick to the latter in this lesson's case.

This lesson isn't a critique of Wile E. Coyote's inappropriate use of TNT, however. Instead, it's about the history, properties, and appropriate uses of this substance.

History

TNT was discovered by German chemist Joseph Wilbrand in 1863. Take a guess as to what you think Wilbrand initially prepared it for use as?

A. A yellow dye

B. An explosive

C. A fire suppressant

D. A psychoactive drug

B would seem like the obvious answer, since that's what it's famous for. But no! It was actually developed to be used as a yellow dye. It wasn't until about 30 years later that people, and later Wile E. Coyote, figured out that it could be used as a good explosive.

Industrial scale productions of TNT didn't begin until the 1890s, and by 1902 the German army was using TNT to fill its munitions. By 1916, major production of TNT was underway in the United States as well.

Not surprisingly, during World War I, TNT was the explosive of choice of every nation at war. It was also used extensively during World War II. After the end of World War II, the U.S. had so many TNT-based munitions to get rid of that it ended up dumping a lot of TNT-contaminated wastewater into the environment. Nevertheless, TNT is still an important component of U.S. military munitions to this day.

Properties & Uses

One reason that TNT became widely used was for its special properties. Yes, it's highly explosive. But it's also unlike other explosives in many ways. For instance, unlike nitroglycerin, it will generally not be set off accidentally by a shock or by jarring it. Neither does it generally explode when exposed to friction. TNT doesn't absorb moisture, and it doesn't react to metal. Thus, it can be used to fill metal shells (munitions). It can also be stored safely for long periods of time.

TNT melts at about 80 degrees C and boils (explodes) at 240 degrees C. At room temperature, it is:

  • Colorless to pale yellow
  • Odorless
  • A solid that can take the form of crushed flakes or crystals

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