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Particle Characteristics of Trace High Explosives: RDX and PETN

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The sizes of explosives particles in fingerprint residues produced from C-4 and Semtex-1A were investigated with respect to a fragmentation model. Particles produced by crushing crystals of RDX and PETN were sized by using scanning electron microscopy, combined with image analysis, and polarized light microscopy was used for imaging and identifying explosive particles in fingerprint residues. Crystals of RDX and PETN fragment in a manner that concentrates mass in the largest particles of the population, which is common for a fragmentation process. Based on the fingerprints studied, the particle size to target for improving mass detection in fingerprint residues by ion mobility spectrometry (IMS) is ≥10 m in diameter. Although particles smaller than 10 m in diameter have a higher frequency, they constitute <20% of the total mass. Efforts to improve collection efficiency of explosives particles for detection by IMS, or other techniques, must take into consideration that the mass may be concentrated in a relatively few particles that may not be homogeneously distributed over the fingerprint area. These results are based on plastic-bonded explosives such as C-4 that contain relatively large crystals of explosive, where fragmentation is the main process leading to the presence of particles in the fingerprint residues.
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Keywords: IMS; PETN; RDX; explosives; fingerprints; forensic science; particle sizes

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Chemical Science and Technology Laboratory, National Institute of Standards and Technology, Gaithersburg, MD.

Publication date: 2007-03-01

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