Nitrogen Tri-Iodide: Schoolboy Explosive?

nitrogen triiodide
Nitrogen Triiodide
I attended high school in the 1960s. A school chum hooked me on chemistry. I chose it for my career. He made the subject interesting by his anecdotes. One concerned the contact explosive, nitrogen triiodide (NI₃). He laughed at the idea of painting a toilet seat with the stuff. Any kid who would site down on it would get the surprise of his life.

Making Nitrogen Triiodide

How may nitrogen triiodide be produced? In pure form, it is quite a complex task, beyond the resources of most budding chemists. However, in not-so-pure form, it is made by combining iodine (I₂) with ammonia (NH₃) dissolved in water—ammonium hydroxide (NH₃ + H₂O → NH₄OH)—existing in complex form with molecules of ammonia, apparently [NI₃·(NH₃)n] where n is 1 or 3.


More importantly, is it simply the fun stuff of pranks, or is it dangerous to use? Hopefully the reader is a person of good sense. Watch the video below to see if you don’t agree it is too dangerous to casually play with as some sort of student play toy.

Note: You might also enjoy What Causes Chemical Explosions?

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  • Bobby Reply

    That is a huge amount of nitrogen tri-iodide. Typically we would make enough to fill the bottom half-inch of a test tube and we would dispense it in pea sized quantities or smaller. It would go in pencil sharpeners, on door knobs, key holes, and drawer slides. We would scatter little splatters of it on a porch or on steps. Cats just “love” it. I have had it go off in my hand, on my finger tips, etc. Just a slight sting and loud noise. It does not take much to make a loud noise and we were stingy with it since the iodine was hard to come by. We had to beg it off our chemistry teacher and he would only give us a few crystals at a time.

    • Vincent Summers Reply

      It is huge in the sense that, as you say, kids wouldn’t use as much as is shown being used in the video. Clearly, however, it is pretty potent stuff. Potentially, it is quite dangerous.

  • Kevin Reply

    I made a sizable batch of this a couple years ago, about a tablespoon’s worth, and I was sure it was still wet enough to work with – – wrong! I had never seen my chubby roommate run so quickly. I wasn’t injured, however my hand was purple and I needed clean underwear. We couldn’t stop laughing once the shock had worn off.

  • Bob Kerby Reply

    As a student in the late 1960s we coated the aisles of Chichester Cathedral as we filed into the service. The dignatories due filed in and as they left before us they detonated the IO3. Great fun we were banned from the boring services for years.

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