Pentaerythritol tetranitrate (PETN) is the powerful high explosive that was in the news over the holiday weekend; allegedly, PETN was found in the possession of the Nigerian terrorist who, according to reports, attempted to detonate an explosive device on Northwest Airlines Flight 253. This flight originated in Amsterdam, and was arriving in Detroit on December 25, 2009, when the individual attempted to detonate the explosive. The terrorist had sewn the PETN into his underwear to avoid detection by authorities
PETN was introduced as an explosive after World War I. It is used by itself in detonators and detonating fuses (Primacord) and in a mixture, called pentolite, with an equal amount of trinitrotoluene (TNT) in grenades and projectiles.
PETN is a colourless, crystalline material that is generally stored and shipped as a mixture with water. It is less sensitive than nitroglycerin but is easily detonated. Valued for its shattering force and efficiency, PETN is the least stable of the common military explosives but retains its properties in storage for longer periods than nitroglycerin or cellulose nitrate (nitrocellulose) does. PETN is also used in medicine as a heart stimulant.
In December 2001, PETN was the explosive used by Richard Reid in his unsuccessful attempt to blow up American Airlines Flight 63 from Paris to Miami. In August 2009, PETN was used in an attempt to murder the Saudi Arabian Deputy Minister of Interior by a Saudi suicide-bomber linked to an al Qaeda cell based in Yemen. The target survived. The bomber died in the blast. The PETN was sewn into his underwear.