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(Don’t) Make Your Own Thermite Launcher

Inventor and YouTuber Colin Furze is making a great case for becoming one of the new MythBusters, even if that’s not really his intention. In fact, Furze seems just fine with crafting a beautifully over-engineered, Steampunk-style incendiary launcher and using it to light things on fire from a relatively safe distance. And while he doesn’t use his homemade thermite to blow up a block of ice a la the MythBusters, he does get some explosive results by igniting a container of gasoline.

Here’s the deal with thermite. It’s a mixture of powdered metal and a metal chemically combined with oxygen that will give off a lot of heat, light, and smoke when ignited. It’s often used in welding railroad tracks, demolition of munitions, and incendiary weapons. In Furze’s case, his thermite used aluminum powder for the fuel along with iron (III) oxide. In the reaction, the aluminum will reduce–a chemistry term for “steal the oxygen molecules”–the metal oxide, since aluminum forms stronger, more stable bonds with oxygen than iron does:

Fe2O3 + 2 Al → 2 Fe + Al2O3

Not captured in this chemical equation is the amount of heat generated–i.e. an intense exothermic reaction–that is enough to melt the iron into intensely glowing, smoking globules that provide the spectacular light show.

Here’s a look at how Furze prepped his thermite concoction and custom-made shells:

You might be wondering why Furze didn’t simply light the thermite directly. Surely an exothermic reaction of this intensity should go up with the touch of a simple flame or spark, right? Actually, the compound is quite stable at room temperature and requires an ignition temperature around 4,000ºF/2,200ºC, the temperature at which a magnesium strips burns. (He also used a simple sparkler for a fuse, which can burn between 1,800ºF and 3,000ºF!)

While the chemistry is cool, I’m more impressed by the craftsmanship of the stylized launcher itself. Here’s how Furze built his Steampunk-inspired thermite cannon:

I can’t stress enough how terrible an idea this is to do on your own. Even Furze, who’s clearly smarter than his YouTube personality might suggest since he is able to craft such epic devices, has informed experts guiding him behind the scenes. Don’t do it. Just sit back and enjoy those brave folks on YouTube who do it for us. They’re the real heroes.

Because Science.

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