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Thoroughly Thermite

Tom Spooner

Thermite is such interesting stuff. It has myriad uses -- in armor piercing incendiary ammunition, to weld railroad track and building grounding systems, as a thermal decoy for heatseeking missiles... I've met one person who even uses the stuff to start his campfires; that sounds like overkill to me, but I can't deny its effectiveness. Basically, for any job that calls for intense, precisely targeted heat, thermite is the stuff.

So what is this remarkable material? It's quite simple: Powdered iron oxide (black) and powdered aluminum. Mix them in equal amounts -- by volume or weight, it doesn't particularly matter, unless you happen to be striving for peak efficiency. Thermite is forgiving stuff, and will work fairly well no matter how mixed.

Obtaining the iron oxide isn't too difficult. One technique involves stuffing steel wool into a pipe and igniting it; you'll need a forced air draft to keep it going. Take a look at that piece of disinformation, the Army Improvised Munitions Handbook; the steel wool trick seems to be one of the workable gimmicks. (Apply anything from that book with extreme caution -- some of what it says is so far wrong that you will kill yourself if you actually try certain procedures.)

Aluminum can be a little harder to come by. It can be had at good paint stores, but you probably don't want to charge it up on your credit card; not if you're reading this anyway. It can also be mail ordered from many chemical and laboratory supply houses. If you go that route, be prepared to burn, no pun intended (oh, okay... Yes, it was intended), that mail drop; don't use that address again. And yes, you can order iron oxide the same way.

If you're short of FRNs, or know someone else who is, filing down aluminum plates and bar stock is an option. Tedious, but it can be done.

So, you have your iron oxide, you have the aluminum powder. You've mixed together equal proportions. Now what?

Now you fire it off.

Easier said than done. If you got ahead of me, you may have noticed that you can't set the stuff afire with a simple match. Thermite does burn hot; but it also takes a good bit of heat to get it going. Powdered magnesium works. (You're familiar with those emergency firestarter blocks? And someone has been seen at readiness expos selling pound jars of magnesium powder; snap it up if you see any.) So does magnesium ribbon, of course. But the ribbon has its own ignition difficulties. The best trick I've seen to date is simple sparklers. Yes, those chemical dipped wires which the older kids detest in favor of more spectacular pyrotechnics.

Their loss. Sparklers will consistently ignite thermite. And while you can light a sparkler with a match, it's a little easier to light a length of cannon fuse, which will in turn fire off the sparkler, which then acts as a fuse for the incendiary mix. (Why do I have cannon fuse? As Earl said in Tremors, "My cannon.") For manual operation, tape a piece of fuse to a sparkler, and put a match to it. For unattended, or timed operation, fire the fuse with a model rocket motor igniter. The "solar" (or whatever they're called these days) can be activated with two AA batteries. Such an electrically operated system can easily incorporate a clock as a timer.

You have your thermite, you can set it off. Now what to do with it...

A soda can full of thermite, set on the hood of a police car (or other statist thugmobile) will do nasty things to the engine.

A similar charge placed on a building transformer or electrical switch box ought to black out the building in question.

Thermite is also a quick, if unsubtle, way of dealing with locks (when bolt cutters just won't do) or locked doors. Even some fire-rated safety boxes shudder at the thought of thermite. Lost your keys?

Someone suggested a small charge of thermite on a hard disk drive as a way of ensuring that there won't be enough magnetic platter left to read old, erased data from. I see possibilities there -- an electrically activated charge, with a relay on the computer bus. If the password isn't typed in on schedule, the thermite ends all your privacy concerns.

Thermite can be delivered in many ways. The simplest is a flammable container to hold the loose powder (or tightly packed powder; the more the merrier sometimes). If you wish to direct the molten mass to a specific target (i.e., down onto switch gear or an engine block), consider a terra cotta flower pot with a drain hole in the bottom. The pot will never be the same afterwards, but neither will what you wanted to torch..

If you want to destroy incriminating evidence (Doesn't it suck that being free is a crime these days? Okay, end of short rant.), you might want to dig a small hole to contain your papers, paper shotgun, tools, et cetera, and mix in some thermite with the goodies. Fire it off, and the feds won't be recovering anything very useful.

If API ammo is your thing, sorry. I don't know how that ignites. If anyone is interested, I'll see what I can come up with. In theory, at least. I'm not sure I want to play around with an improvised API munition in my guns. Especially not with my finger on the trigger.

There is a company that sells specialty ammunition - shotshells with flechettes, ball and chains, compressed powdered lead slugs, lots of tracers, and a hollow 12 gauge slug meant to be filled with pistol powder and capped with a shotshell primer. So equipped, it supposedly can blow large holes in car doors. But you might try filling one with thermite, topping the cavity off with the powdered material from a sparkler, and then capping it with the primer. This company seems to change its name on a nearly daily basis -- they were Blammo Ammo when I first encountered them. And not too long ago, they had a website at http://www.funammo.com. These "blockbuster" slugs can also occasionally be found at gun stores.

I've also heard a thermite paste suggested. I've tried the trick using petroleum jelly, but it looks like the vaporizing petroleum carries off too much heat for the thermite to catch. If anyone has ideas along these lines, I'm open to suggestions.

Another possibility is an incendiary block. I first read of such a thing made of a 50:50 mix of plaster of paris and powdered aluminum. Supposedly a block cast of this can burn at several thousand degrees, and might be useful for controlled burns. Like buildings. If this works, I haven't managed it. I have had no luck in igniting such a block, even using thermite as an igniter. Until someone shows me otherwise, I'll consider this one just another example of Internet BS.

But back to the point. An incendiary block that does work is also thermite based. I use a mix of thermite and plaster of paris. There should only be enough plaster to make the mass hold together; a ratio of 4 to 1, thermite to plaster, is the minimum. Any more plaster than that and the stuff doesn't want to ignite. The sparkler igniter can be conveniently molded into the block. If electrically detonated, a creative (destructive?) individual might cast the entire works within the block.

Moldable thermite opens up other possibilities: Rings or "horseshoes" to be hung on doorknobs and locks. Incendiary statuary, and other innocuous-seeming devices. Sectioned blocks to be placed on tower guylines, to bring down said tower. The imagination boggles. Or mine does. I leave additional musings to your imagination.

(c) 2000


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