Weird Wednesdays: The world’s most volatile substance


The “Weird Wednesday” column is brought to you by a staff writer who is obsessed with factoids, history bits and freaky information to get you over the weekday hump.

Nitrogen itself is fairly benevolent in its natural, happiest form: two nitrogen atoms sharing a triple bond, N2 gas like the fizz you find in your Guiness Beer. However when turned into azidoazide azide it becomes much more unstable. (Morabito Davide/Flickr Creative Commons)

Chemistry is known for being one of the more dreaded subjects in both high school and college. Far from the lessons full of messing around with colorful chemicals and setting things on fire that TV that told us it would be, it’s mostly equations and drawing diagrams.

Then again, when faced with the prospect of working with the most explosive nitrogenous compound known to man, you’d probably take the diagrams any day.

Azidoazide azide, known by its chemical formula C2N14 or as N-amino azidotetrazole, was created by the US Army and a team of German chemists in 2010. It consists of 14 nitrogen atoms in a hexagonal pattern bonded to two carbon atoms — a structure that isn’t found in nature. The compound is 100% man-made.

Nitrogen itself is fairly benevolent in its natural, happiest form: two nitrogen atoms sharing a triple bond, N2 gas. The bonds between the atoms store energy in a stable form, meaning that the gas has a variety of uses, including inflating racecar tires, giving Guinness beer its fizz and even as a fire suppression measure.

However, when you take that triple bond away, the nitrogen becomes unstable. It has extra energy that isn’t being stored in a bond– energy that it can unleash in a furious, fiery moment. This is why many nitrogen-based fertilizers such as ammonium nitrate are so explosive– they aren’t triple bonded. This is also why fertilizer factories have a tendency to blow up in the kind of way that makes for a Batman villain backstory.

When you create a compound as unstable as azidoazide azide, the nitrogen want to return to its natural state, N2, in the same way that those memory-foam mattresses want to return to their original shape. The usual way for the nitrogen to turn back to N2 is by releasing that energy in an exothermic reaction when agitated.

Think of it as a Jenga tower: more stable molecules like N2 are a solid tower with lots of blocks, aka their bonds. High energy nitrogenous compounds are like a rickety tower with several blocks removed, all it takes is a little bump before they topple over.

Azidoazide azide is composed of so many unstable nitrogen atoms that it tends to be more, well, explodey than any other nitrogenous compound. Some compounds need to have a certain amount of energy added before they’ll revert to their natural states. Potassium nitrate or saltpeter, for example, usually needs to have a large amount of heat in the form of a flame to ignite.

How volatile is azidoazide azide, you ask?

Well, it’ll explode if you try dissolving it in a solution. It’ll explode if you keep it at too high of a temperature. It’ll explode if you try exposing it to x-rays or infrared light.

It’ll explode if you move it. It’ll explode if you breathe quietly right next to it.

It’ll explode if you leave it alone in a climate-controlled room.

It’s so unstable, that scientists that specialize in some of the deadliest substances in the world refuse to work with it. Sometimes, you must value your appendages over scientific progress.

So next time you’re in chemistry class, be thankful that the worst you have to deal with is the Universal Gas Law. Horrible as though it may be, your homework will most likely not explode in your face as you complete it.

Marlese Lessing is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at She tweets @marlese_lessing.

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