Long ago I came to the conclusion that no matter how much I stockpile, it won’t be enough. That’s why I’m always continuing to increase my stockpile. Of course, that process is slow, as I have to fit it in with other budgetary constraints. This has made me sure that if there is ever a true TEOTWAWKI event, I’ll be wishing I had a bigger stockpile, no matter how big it is.
That means scavenging, when the time comes; getting into places people don’t want me in, in order to take things they don’t want me to take. In other circumstances, it would be called theft. But I’m only planning on taking things that the original owner has abandoned, so hopefully nobody will mind.
Let me just say here, that there’s a rather fine line between looting and scavenging. I’m not sure how other people identify the difference, but to me, one difference is that people scavenge things they need to have, in order to survive, while they loot things they want to have. The other difference is that I only intend to scavenge from abandoned buildings and vehicles; places where it is fairly obvious that the original owner no longer is either dead or they will never be returning for their property.
I also see scavenging as a way of helping out my community. While we preppers ascribe to the concept that we can’t help everyone, I would like to at least try. If I can break into a warehouse or tractor trailer full of food and use it to help others stay alive, I’d like to think I would do so… after I got what I need.
Related: 9 Places to Scavenge After SHTF
This is where thermite comes in. most warehouses, train cars and tractor trailers are made of metal. That’s both because it is a cost-effective means of constructing sturdy structures and because it is hard to break into. Few of us carry around the tools necessary to cut through a metal wall or the bars that hold the doors on an 18 wheeler’s trailer closed.
Thermite is an excellent alternative to tools for this. Developed by a German chemist in 1893 to weld train tracks together, thermite burns at over 4,000°F (2204°C). That’s enough to cut through steel, which has a melting point of 2750°F (1510°C).
Igniting something that burns this hot is difficult, requiring a temperature of over 3,000°F (1649°C) to autoignite. We can get that from a propane or mapp gas torch, but magnesium ribbon, which burns at a temperature of 4,000°F (2204°’C) is normally used as an igniter. Magnesium is highly flammable and will autoignite at a temperature of 883°F (472°C). That’s low enough that it can be ignited with a common butane lighter, matches or a sparking type fire starter, like a Ferro Rod.
Fortunately, thermite is rather easy and inexpensive to make, if you have the right materials. The materials most commonly used are iron oxide powder (otherwise known as rust) and aluminum powder. The burning forces the iron oxide to release oxygen, which then reacts with the aluminum in the fire, converting it to aluminum oxide.
Thermite has long been used by the military for the destruction of war material, when it becomes necessary to abandon a position. Thermite grenades have been used to destroy aircraft, buildings, safes with classified documents inside them, and weapons. The high burn temperature ensures that it will destroy pretty much anything it is used on.
When buying materials for making your thermite, be sure to get iron oxide and not synthetic iron oxide. Synthetic iron oxide is a pigment, normally used in cosmetics and for coloring concrete; it isn’t rust. So it doesn’t have any oxygen to give up in the chemical reaction.
Related: 5 Chemistry Experiments For Preppers
We’re going to make thermite out of iron oxide and aluminum; both because these are the most common materials used and because in a post-disaster scenario, those are the materials you are most likely to encounter. You can get iron oxide by scraping rust off of whatever steel or iron objects you can find and you can get aluminum powder by filing a piece of aluminum. The one material that will not be commonly available, which you will need, is the magnesium tape. Fortunately for us, that’s relatively inexpensive, doesn’t take up much room and is readily available from online retailers, like eBay and Amazon.
Just for the sake of being complete, there are several other metals that can be used. You need one metal that is oxidized and one that is not, in order to make thermite.
- Possible oxidized metals: copper oxide, chromium oxide, iron oxide, magnesium oxide, silicon dioxide, boron trioxide and lead oxide
- Possible non-oxidized metals: boron, magnesium, calcium, titanium ,zinc and silicon
Information varies on the ratio of the two metals used in making thermite. I’ve seen 27:80, 1:3, and 3:8. I used the 3:8 ratio, which seemed to work well. That was a ratio by weight, not by volume. Considering that steel is considerably heavier than aluminum and that we are working with powdered ingredients, measuring them by volume won’t be as accurate.
The kind of scale you would want to use for this is one that is used for weighing gunpowder for reloading or for weighing jewelry to determine the value of the precious metals in it. My scale has a range of 50 grams and an accuracy of 0.001 grams. You want to be sure your scale has a tare capability and that it has a removable container for the materials being weighed.Working with the 3:8 ratio mentioned above, I made a batch of thermite using 3 grams of powdered aluminum and 8 grams of powdered iron oxide. After weighing, the materials were put on a piece of common printer paper for mixing.
If you want to add an element of additional surety to your thermite, helping it to ignite more quickly, you can mix a small amount of magnesium powder in with the aluminum and iron oxide. It wouldn’t take much; something on the order of 1/3 the volume of the aluminum. If I had that available and I was making thermite for use in an emergency situation, I think I would do that.
I used an artist’s palette knife for scooping the materials out of the packages and for mixing them together, as I didn’t have the correct chemist’s tool for this. The materials being mixed didn’t seem to mind.
Now the only question was whether my thermite would burn. Here it is, sitting on a plate, with the magnesium ribbon fuse in place. I am using a ceramic plate to burn on, as it is non-flammable and won’t melt. I hoped that it wouldn’t break either. Even so, some of my plates did break; I’m glad I got them at the dollar store.
Now, here’s the same thermite, a few moments later, after I ignited the magnesium fuse. I used a common propane torch to ignite it; the same kind you would use for sweating copper plumbing pipe. I could have used a lighter, but I wanted to make sure it light on the first try. I wasn’t testing the fuse, but rather the thermite.
Please note that the smoke produced by burning thermite is not something you want to be breathing in. If you decide to try making your own thermite, do your testing outdoors, where there is ample ventilation. Besides, you can burn down your house with this stuff; something I’m sure you don’t want to do.
Using the Thermite
Now we have thermite, but how are we going to use it? Powdered thermite, like we have here, isn’t going to do much to breach a door and get us into a building. We need some way of turning that into a usable product, which we can apply exactly where we need it.
The idea I came up with was to put the thermite inside of plastic wiring loom, of the kind that you can find wrapped around the wiring harness, under the hood of just about any car. This should be available in the wake of a disaster, even if you have to scavenge it from abandoned cars. It provides a linear container that is flexible, yet will hold the powder inside.
Another nice thing about the wiring loom is that it is slit down one side. This is done so that the wires can be put inside it; but it gives us an ideal opening to use for putting our magnesium ribbon fuse inside. That magnesium ribbon should run the full length of the loom, as you can see in the cutaway picture below.
As an alternative to the wiring loom, you could probably also use PVC pipe or electrical conduit, if you can’t find enough wiring loom for your needs. All you need is something to hold the thermite in place, which you can then attach to the side of a building or wrap around a padlock.
The easiest way to fill the loom with the thermite is to close off one end, then stick a funnel in the other. Have an assistant pour the powder into the funnel, while you move the loom around, shaking the powder down to fill it. When the loom is filled, tape the end, as well as taping around the loom periodically, to keep the thermite from spilling out.
One Last Thing
As I was thinking about this project, I wondered how I could ignite the thermite without having to be right there. Thermite burns quickly and very hot. It’s not the kind of thing where you want to be standing there while it is burning, especially if you’re burning a lot.
The idea is to have something like the electronic detonators used for igniting dynamite. Those work by having a wire with a thin layer of explosive material (fast-burning in other words) stuck to the outside of the wire. When current is passed through the wire, the wire heats up, igniting this material, which in turn ignites the dynamite.
I don’t have any electronic detonators and I think you have to be a licensed explosives technician to buy them. Nevertheless, I came up with two ways of accomplishing essentially the same thing. One is to use nichrome wire. For those of you who were into model rocketry as a kid, you’ll remember this as what we used to ignite the rocket motors. But while I have some nichorome wire in my workshop, I don’t expect that most people will have it on hand in a post-disaster world.
That led me to my second option, the common incandescent light bulb. While these are quickly falling off store shelves and being replaced by CFL or LED bulbs, you can still find them, especially for specialty applications, like appliance bulbs.
If you break the glass bulb, you’ve got access to the filament inside, which is made of tungsten. As we all know, plug that into the wall outlet and the tungsten filament will burn out quickly. But it does that at 3,000°F (1649°C), hot enough to ignite our magnesium fuse, as shown in the picture below.
Granted, this test was done using AC power, but the same thing would happen if I was using batteries. You just need to ensure that you have enough voltage from the batteries, that you get the tungsten to burn quickly, rather than just providing a slow burn.
There you have it. Now, what other uses can you come up with for thermite in a survival situation?
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