Organic compound, powerful explosive and ingredient of most forms of dynamite. It is a colourless, oily, somewhat toxic liquid with a sweet, burning taste. Its safe use as a blasting explosive became possible after Alfred P. Nobel developed dynamite in the 1860s with an inert porous material (moderator) such as charcoal or diatomaceous earth. Nitroglycerin is also used in a mixture in rocket propellants. In medicine, it is used to dilate blood vessels, especially to ease angina pectoris.
Learn more about nitroglycerin with a free trial on Britannica.com.
Nitroglycerin (NG), (US spelling) also known as nitroglycerine, (UK Spelling), trinitroglycerin, trinitroglycerine, 1,2,3-trinitroxypropane and glyceryl trinitrate, is a heavy, colorless, oily, explosive liquid obtained by nitrating glycerol. Since the 1860s, it has been used as an active ingredient in the manufacture of explosives, specifically dynamite, and as such is employed in the construction and demolition industries. Similarly, since the 1880s, it has been used by the military as an active ingredient, and a gellatinizer for nitrocellulose, in some solid propellants, such as Cordite and Ballistite. Nitroglycerin is also used medically as a vasodilator to treat heart conditions, such as angina and chronic heart failure.
One of Sobrero's fellow students was Alfred Nobel, who took the formula home to Sweden and experimented with safer ways to handle the dangerous substance; his younger brother Emil and several workers were killed in 1864 in a nitroglycerin explosion at the family's armaments factory in Heleneborg. A year later, Nobel founded Alfred Nobel & Company in Germany, building an isolated factory in the Krümmel hills of Geesthacht near Hamburg. This business exported a liquid combination of nitroglycerin and gunpowder known as "Blasting Oil", but it was extremely unstable and difficult to transport, as shown in numerous catastrophes. The buildings of the Krümmel factory itself were destroyed on two occasions.
In April 1866, three crates of nitroglycerin were shipped to California for the Central Pacific Railroad, who wished to experiment with its blasting capability to speed the construction of the 1,659-foot (506 m) Summit Tunnel through the Sierra Nevada. One of the crates exploded, destroying a Wells Fargo office in San Francisco and killing fifteen people, leading to a complete ban on the transport of liquid nitroglycerin in California. The on-site manufacture of nitroglycerin was thus required for the remaining hard-rock drilling and blasting required for the completion of America's First Transcontinental Railroad.
Liquid nitroglycerin was widely banned elsewhere as well, and this finally led to Alfred Nobel & Company's development of dynamite in 1867, made by mixing the nitroglycerin with the diatomaceous earth (kieselguhr) found in the Krümmel hills. Similar mixtures, such as dualine (1867), lithofracteur (1869), and gelignite (1875), mixed nitroglycerin with other inert absorbents -- many different combinations were tried in order to get around Nobel's tightly controlled patents. Dynamites containing nitrocellulose, which increase the viscosity of the mix, are commonly known as "gelatins."
Following discoveries that amyl nitrite helped to alleviate chest pain, Doctor William Murrell experimented with the use of nitrogylcerin to alleviate angina pectoris and reduce blood pressure. He began treating patients with small doses in 1878, and it was soon adopted into widespread use after he published his results in The Lancet in 1879. The medical establishment used the name "glyceryl trinitrate" or "trinitrin" to avoid alarming patients who associated nitroglycerin with explosions.
Early in the history of this explosive it was discovered that liquid nitroglycerin can be "desensitized" by cooling to 5 to 10 °C (40 to 50 °F), at which temperature it freezes, contracting upon solidification. However, later thawing can be extremely sensitizing, especially if impurities are present or if warming is too rapid. It is possible to chemically "desensitize" nitroglycerin to a point where it can be considered approximately as "safe" as modern high explosive formulations, by the addition of approximately 10-30% ethanol, acetone, or dinitrotoluene (percentage varies with the desensitizing agent used). Desensitization requires extra effort to reconstitute the "pure" product. Failing this, it must be assumed that desensitized nitroglycerin is substantially more difficult to detonate, possibly rendering it useless as an explosive for practical application.
A serious problem in the use of nitroglycerin results from its high freezing point 13 °C (55 °F). Solid nitroglycerin is much less sensitive to shock than the liquid, a feature common in explosives; in the past it was often shipped in the frozen state, but this resulted in a high number of accidents during the thawing process by the end user just prior to use. This disadvantage is overcome by using mixtures of nitroglycerin with other polynitrates; for example, a mixture of nitroglycerin and ethylene glycol dinitrate freezes at -29 °C (-20 °F).
The sulfuric acid produces protonated nitric acid species, which are attacked by glycerin's nucleophilic oxygen atoms. The nitro group is thus added as an ester C-O-NO2 and water is produced. This is different from an aromatic nitration reaction in which nitronium ions are the active species in an electrophilic attack of the molecules' ring system.
The addition of glycerin results in an exothermic reaction (i.e., heat is produced), as usual for mixed acid nitrations. However, if the mixture becomes too hot, it results in runaway, a state of accelerated nitration accompanied by the destructive oxidizing of organic materials of nitric acid and the release of very poisonous brown nitrogen dioxide gas at high risk of an explosion. Thus, the glycerin mixture is added slowly to the reaction vessel containing the mixed acid (not acid to glycerin). The nitrator is cooled with cold water or some other coolant mixture and maintained throughout the glycerin addition at about 22 °C, much below which the esterification occurs too slowly to be useful. The nitrator vessel, often constructed of iron or lead and generally stirred with compressed air, has an emergency trap door at its base, which hangs over a large pool of very cold water and into which the whole reaction mixture (called the charge) can be dumped to prevent an explosion, a process referred to as drowning. If the temperature of the charge exceeds about 30 °C (actual value varying by country) or brown fumes are seen in the nitrators vent, then it is immediately drowned.
The main use of nitroglycerin, by tonnage, is in explosives such as dynamite and in propellants.
Alfred Nobel developed the use of nitroglycerin as a blasting explosive by mixing the nitroglycerine with inert absorbents particularly kieselgur. He named this explosive dynamite and patented it in 1867. It was supplied ready for use in the form of sticks, individually wrapped in grease proof paper. Dynamite and similar explosives were widely adopted for civil engineering tasks, such as building railway tunnels and cuttings; and for quarrying.
Nitroglycerin was also adapted as a military propellant, for use in guns and rifles. Poudre B, invented in France in 1886, was one of the first military propellants to replace gunpowder; but it was based on nitrocellulose, not nitroglycerin. It was later found to be unstable.
Alfred Nobel then developed ballistite, by combining nitroglycerin and guncotton. He patented it in 1887. Ballistite was adopted by a number of European governments, as a military propellant. Italy was the first to adopt it. However, it was not adopted by the British Government. They, together with the British Commonwealth countries, adopted cordite, which had been developed by Sir Frederick Abel and Sir James Dewar, in 1889. The original Cordite Mk I consisted of 58% nitroglycerine, 37% guncotton and 5% petroleum jelly. Ballistite and cordite were both manufactured in the forms of cords.
Smokeless powders were originally developed using nitrocellulose as the sole explosive ingredient; and were therefore known as single base propellants. A range of smokeless powders that contain both nitrocellulose and nitroglycerin, known as double base propellants, were also developed. Smokeless powders were originally supplied only for military use; however they were also soon developed for civilian use and were quickly adopted for sport. Some are known as sporting powders.
Blasting gelatin, also known as gelignite, was invented by Nobel in 1875, using nitroglycerine, wood pulp, and sodium or potassium nitrates. This was an early low-cost, flexible explosive.
A large cordite factory was also built in Canada in World War I. The Canadian Explosives Limited Cordite factory at Nobel, Ontario was designed to produce 1,500,000 lb (681 tonne) of Cordite per month. It required 286 tonnes of nitroglycerin per month.
These effects arise because nitroglycerin is converted to nitric oxide in the body (by a mechanism that is not completely understood), and nitric oxide is a natural vasodilator. Recently, it has also become popular in an off-label use at reduced (0.2%) concentration in ointment form as an effective treatment for anal fissure.
For workers in nitroglycerin (NTG) manufacturing facilities, this can result in a "Monday morning headache" phenomenon for those who experience regular nitroglycerin exposure in the workplace leading to the development of NTG tolerance for the vasodilating effects. Over the weekend the workers lose the tolerance to NTG and when they are reexposed on Monday the prominent vasodilation produces tachycardia, dizziness, and a headache.