SWM seeks experienced chemist for “explosive polymerization”

Image: S2-P2-P6, by sculptor Roxy Paine.

About a year ago I was wandering around Maker Faire Bay Area thinking about polymerization. Collin had recently posted his now-world-famous cymatics video, and I was standing around talking to the TAP plastics folks about whether it might be possible to “freeze” cymatic forms by applying the sound waves to some kind of polymer resin that could then be solidifed, almost instantaneously, by adding a drop or two of catalyst. I had, you will not be surprised to learn, been drinking heroic amounts of coffee.

But in the subsequent process of researching fast polymerization reactions, I came across an intriguing term: Explosive polymerization. Visions of exploding goo bombs pushed schemes for freezing cymatics to the back-burner, and I started Googling around excitedly, seeking the inevitable YouTube video that would show me exactly what an “explosive polymerization” looked like, and if it was as exciting as it sounded.

As far as I can tell, they’re aren’t any.

Moreover, textual information in the tubes is scanty. The phrase appears in the abstracts of a few articles in polymer science journals, and in safety warnings associated with certain chemicals that are prone to explosively polymerize and with those that are prone to initiate the process. (Including some safety nightmares that are in both categories.) Inevitably it’s considered as, you know, a bad thing. An uncontrolled, useless, and probably dangerous process to be avoided if at all possible.

And I’m sure that’s all true. But it sounds really neat. And I want to see it.

I mean, taking proper precautions, I can set off a firecracker or other small conventional explosive, film it, show it off to others, and generally have a good time learning something about the natural world. And even though I’ve got a graduate degree in organic chemistry, I know comparatively little about polymers, and I’m not about to start experimenting without advice from somebody who knows what from what-not.

So I’m crowd-sourcing the problem. Is there a specialist in the house who knows something about explosive polymerization? And if so, can you tell me: What is the polymerization analog of a small firecracker? Some kind of diminutive goo-bomb that will go off impressively but without injuring bystanders or spraying horrible toxins everywhere? I mean theoretically, of course. I can’t promise to actually do anything unless I can satisfy myself it’s really safe, but maybe somebody can point me in the right direction?


I am descended from 5,000 generations of tool-using primates. Also, I went to college and stuff. I am a long-time contributor to MAKE magazine and My work has also appeared in ReadyMade, c't – Magazin für Computertechnik, and The Wall Street Journal.

View more articles by Sean Michael Ragan