Mechanism of thermal unimolecular decomposition of TNT (2,4,6- trinitrotoluene): A DFT study

Revital Cohen, Yehuda Zeiri, Elhanan Wurzberg, Ronnie Kosloff

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122 Scopus citations


The widespread and long-term use of TNT has led to extensive study of its thermal and explosive properties. Although much research on the thermolysis of TNT and polynitro organic compounds has been undertaken, the kinetics and mechanism of the initiation and propagation reactions and their dependence on the temperature and pressure are unclear. Here, we report a comprehensive computational DFT investigation of the unimolecular adiabatic (thermal) decomposition of TNT. On the basis of previous experimental observations, we have postulated three possible pathways for TNT decomposition, keeping the aromatic ring intact, and calculated them at room temperature (298 K), 800, 900, 1500, 1700, and 2000 K and at the detonation temperature of 3500 K. Our calculations suggest that at relatively low temperatures, reaction of the methyl substituent on the ring (C - H α attack), leading to the formation of 2,4-dinitro-anthranil, is both kinetically and thermodynamically the most favorable pathway, while homoly sis of the C - NO2 bond is endergonic and kinetically less favorable. At ∼ 1250-1500 K, the situation changes, and the C - NO2 homolysis pathway dominates TNT decomposition. Rearrangement of the NO2 moiety to ONO followed by O - NO homolysis is a thermodynamically more favorable pathway than the C - NO2 homolysis pathway at room temperature and is the most exergonic pathway at high temperatures; however, at all temperatures, the C - NO2 → C - ONO rearrangement - homolysis pathway is kinetically unfavorable as compared to the other two pathways. The computational temperature analysis we have performed sheds light on the pathway that might lead to a TNT explosion and on the temperature in which it becomes exergonic. The results appear to correlate closely with the experimentally derived shock wave detonation time (100-200 fs) for which only the C - NO2 homolysis pathway is kinetically accessible.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)11074-11083
Number of pages10
JournalJournal of Physical Chemistry A
Issue number43
StatePublished - 1 Nov 2007
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Physical and Theoretical Chemistry


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