Making and Using Thermite for Survival

Rich M.
By Rich M. February 3, 2020 11:12

Making and Using Thermite for Survival

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

Introducing Thermite

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.

Making and Using Thermite for Survival 1

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

Making Thermite

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.Making and Using Thermite for Survival 2Working 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. Making and Using Thermite for Survival 3

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.Making and Using Thermite for Survival 4

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.Making and Using Thermite for Survival 5

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.

Related: Nuclear Protection Supplies You Need To Have Ready

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.Making and Using Thermite for Survival 6

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. Making and Using Thermite for Survival 7

Related: How To Hot-Wire A Car When The SHTF (with pictures)

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.

Making and Using Thermite for Survival 8

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.

Making and Using Thermite for Survival 9

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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Rich M.
By Rich M. February 3, 2020 11:12
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27 Comments

  1. IBpackin247 February 3, 15:59

    The email said, “Today I’ll show you how to get it using nothing but rusted nails and a coffee grinder.”
    where does the coffee grinder come in?

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    • Kil Emal February 6, 04:28

      Most likely, he forgot to mention to use it as a way to excite a handful of rusty nails, then just tap out the rust onto the paper/scale. Would make a hell of a racket, though!!

      A bit tedious, but with some time you could throw a bunch of ferrous scrap metal into a 5 gallon bucket or an old igloo cooler, then fill with water and salt, or bathe in weak hydrochloric acid, etc. https://m.wikihow.com/Make-Metal-Rust

      After the metal becomes really well corroded, dump the water & let dry. The seal the container and “agitate” to separate the rust. Rinse and repeat until the metal is all converted. Just a thought, if you can’t find some nice, smooth, rusty steel….

      Reply to this comment
  2. frogman February 3, 18:43

    Another alternative is to use military smoke grenades and empty out the smoke powder and replace with the termite they work just like the military thermite grenades. and you don’t need any licence to obtain the military smoke grenades;

    Reply to this comment
  3. DMXGuru February 3, 18:44

    IBpackin247 – rusted nails are iron oxide. That’s the oxidized metal referenced above. The grinder is to turn it to powder to mix with your non-oxidized metal.

    Reply to this comment
  4. red February 3, 19:57

    Just what the mother-in-law needs! An old warhorse, she would have liked this article. Her heir, my youngest stepson and his sister are weapons experts and when they were young, they were introduced to friends at the armory. I taught what I could, but the men and women took them in hand and long before graduating high school, each knew what the soldiers knew. Both love ‘toys’ that go boom. My stepdaughter made lieutenant in Navy, and likes to bug her brother that he only made it to Pvt. 1st class. 🙂 niio

    Reply to this comment
  5. LJ February 3, 20:12

    Nichrome wire can be found in toasters, hair dryers, and other heating elements. You would probably be able to scavenge that as well.

    Reply to this comment
  6. gary February 3, 21:14

    could not access the link on 10x solar

    Reply to this comment
  7. Cosnowia February 3, 21:58

    You seem to be very stupid and self centered. Somebody owns every square inch of property in the United States. That “abandoned building” you speak of is owned by another person, perhaps a prepper like yourself. Same for the trailer.
    I have prepared and saved my whole life to be ready for hard times (and for people like you). I’m ready for the druggies, leaches, career criminals and misc. parasites like yourself.
    Suck it up, cupcake. Just because you aren’t ready, don’t steal from those of us that are. No matter how you try to justify it to yourself, it low life, dirt bag behavior. If you break into my “abandoned building”, I know exactly what is going to happen to you.

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    • red February 4, 01:50

      Um, who are you talking to? But, nope. When you buy a ranch, often there’s something called adverse land. No one owns it. If the rancher wants it, he can start to pay taxes on it, or use it for free. Do you live in Hollywood or Georgetown that there are no abandoned homes? County here just tore one down. No one paid taxes on it for years, and it was a pigsty where passersby would camp for the night and crop on the floor. Back in PA, sometimes they take down half a block because no one lives in the houses or factories. It’s that way all over the country, except in Rodeo Drive or wherever you live.

      Reply to this comment
    • left coast chuck February 4, 05:12

      It is well established common law in every state of the United States that abandoned property can be claimed by another. Did you ever hear of a TV program where the contents of storage units are sold at public auction? Did you ever hear of the law of escheat? If you haven’t, you had better read up on it because you may already be a victim of it.

      Under your theory a property owner who had someone leave a junker car on his property could never get rid of it. A city could never tow a junker car from the city streets. A home could never be sold for unpaid property taxes.

      And worse yet, we have the seizure laws that the Supremes have okayed in the U.S. vs. one 1947 Cadillac where property can be seized by law enforcement if used in the commission of a crime. We have a similar law here in California wherein if you solicit a prostitute your automobile can be seized. I don’t know if that one has reached the Supremes in Washington DC. Personally I can’t understand the legal basis for it. But the Supremes have said taking the property of another is okay in some circumstances so you have the imprimatur of the Supremes, you just have to make sure you are aware of the reasonable man standards and follow those guidelines.

      The author if this article didn’t say he was going to steal from persons. He indicated that he would take what he needed from abandoned cars and buildings. If you see a car on the highway and the doors are open, the trunk is open and the hood is up and there is no one in sight and there are numerous other cars apparently abandoned on the same stretch of highway, do you think it just might meet the legal definition that a reasonable man might consider that automobile to be abandoned property?

      Do you think if you come upon a Safeway distribution center and there is no one around and society has broken down that Safeway is once again going to become a viable corporate entity and reclaim their warehouse?

      It is my opinion that you have hastily jumped to a conclusion that the author intends to go on a pillaging rampage ala a Viking raid. He was actually talking about what 98% of us are going to be doing after the EOTW — scavenging. Don’t think that you won’t either because as the author pointed out, there is no way that you can have everything you need for you and your family to survive after the EOTW.

      I think you have been a bit hasty in your post and need to spend some time considering just how serious an EOTW situation will be to the welfare of you and your family. Consider that you are now living in 1750, because an EOTW event will put us back in the early years of the eighteenth century. The only difference is that you have none of the primitive infrastructure that existed in that time. There is no village blacksmith to repair some broken metal tool that you need to prepare the soil for planting. You don’t have a blacksmith shop set up in your garage and don’t know the first thing about working metal anyway. To paraphrase Karl Malden, “What will you do? What will you do?” Does your wife know how to card wool and spring yarn from raw wool? Do you have a loom in your home so that your wife can weave lindsey-woolsey for clothing? Are you going to plow by hand? Do you have a horse? Do you know how to hitch a plow to a horse so that you don’t fatally injure the animal? Do you know how to slaughter a hog and turn it into useable meat? Do you know how to use all of its parts for various items? Do you have a manual sausage maker to make sausage? Do you know how to repair the broken wheel of a horse-drawn cart? Do you know how to cast your own lead bullets? Do you have casting materials? You know how to make thermite, do you know how to make gun powder? Do you know how to load your own cartridges and do you have the necessary supplies and tools on hand? Do you know how to skin a deer or cow and preserve the hide?

      I have only briefly touched on the ordinary life skills of the average male of the year 1750.

      Or, some years after the EOTW your kids have outgrown all their clothing. Your own clothes are mere rags. You stumble upon a trailer that is locked. Will you break the lock? Oh, no, your sense of values won’t let you break the lock. Let’s suppose you don’t have to violate your sense of values because the trailer is unlocked and the door is swinging in the breeze. Out of just plain old curiosity you peer inside the trailer. It happens to have been destined for delivery to various Dick’s Sporting Goods locations and is loaded with all kinds of clothing, footwear and camping supplies. Are you going to say to yourself, “No, that’s Dick’s property and not mine. I’m going to leave it so that some day Dick’s can use it to once again restart their chain of sporting goods stores”?

      If you tell me that you wouldn’t touch the merchandise because it wasn’t yours, I will think one or both of two thoughts. Either you are lying to yourself and by transference to me or you are a total fool or both.

      I think an apology to the author would be in order.

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    • left coast chuck February 4, 05:27

      Actually vast areas of the United States are in public ownership. The theory is that they are owned by all of us. They are “managed for the public benefit” by either the U.S. Forest Service or the Bureau of Land Management. Some of that land is leased from either of those two agencies and the lessees may not want you trespassing on their lease, but there are literally thousands of square miles of desolate land that “belongs to the public” which is us.

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      • red February 4, 12:37

        Just mind that rancher’s no-trespassing sign, If You Can Read This, You’re In Range. And that any Brahma crossbred cow who sees someone hiking on her turf thinks it’s the opening season for football. She’s always eager to knock someone thru the goalposts of life. definitely, a lady with a bad attitude. That’s why ranchers south of the border like horns on their cattle. It makes the mojados avoid their pastures. Any Jersey bull is happy to do that, as well. niio

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  8. Old eod guy February 4, 00:58

    Not to be too nit-picky, but I believe thermate is made with aluminum powder and thermite is made with magnesium powder.

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    • Johnny3 February 5, 09:14

      Nope; According to a Google search, United Nuclear says, “Thermite…. composed mainly of metal oxide and aluminum powder.”

      Reply to this comment
  9. Steve February 4, 00:58

    Okey Dokey so when SHTF who will have a digital scale to measure the ingredients?

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    • Ruralguy February 4, 04:10

      Use a simple balance beam and select your weights to effect the ratios you want to use. This can actually be a very crude, homemade mechanism and still be highly effective. You don’t even need to know any specific weights or values at all, as long as you use, say, 1 bolt with a nut on it for the counterweight for the metal, and 3 of those same bolts and nuts for the counterweight for the oxidizer, or even just weigh out three trays of oxide for each tray of metal. All three ratios given are very close in terms of their actual values, and comparing them, it seems the preference should be towards using a little more oxidizer than less.

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    • left coast chuck February 4, 05:24

      You don’t actually need a manufactured scale. You make a balance beam. On one side you have some kind of weight. on the other side you pile on the substance you want to use. As soon as the two side are equal, you have one part. Do that two more times and you have three parts.
      Then you do the same with the other substance you are using, only you balance out eight parts. You have your formula by weight. Balance scales have been used for centuries. I am confident you can find at least 5,000 U-tube videos on how to make balance scales due to the thriving drug trade here in the U.S. Every drug dealer in the country has a balance scale. Every police evidence room has hundreds if not thousands of balance scales that they have seized.

      So if you can’t make your own balance scale or break into the local police station to raid their evidence room, all you have to do is bop over to your neighborhood drug dealer and make a deal where you can use his balance scale to measure out some thermite. Your deal might be that you swap him the use of his scale for a smidge of your thermite. I am sure he has a rival or two he wouldn’t mind burning out so he can probably find a use for the thermite.

      It doesn’t have to be digital. My balance beam scale that I use to measure powder for reloading cartridges is purely analog. It is just a tad more sophisticated than what I have described above but it follows exactly the same principle.

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    • Ransom February 4, 18:37

      Another simple way is to prepare beforehand and use a volume measure like reloading scoops. Smokeless powder is measured by weight not volume but thousands of reloaders use the little Lee scoops by knowing the amount of weight each one holds. If you take a few minutes before the SHTF and weigh out a couple different sized scoops of the materials you can then use the volume measure to mix without any technology at all………

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      • left coast chuck February 7, 04:04

        Ransom: You don’t even have to use Lee Reloader scoops. You can use a measuring spoon and get close enough. If your formula is off a bit, it will either burn like crazy or just fizzle out. It isn’t like loading a .458 Winchester Magnum where perhaps five grains of powder can mean the whole breach blows into myriad shards of hot steel flying in all directions with many of the shards impacting your face around your eyes and nose.

        My little bit about trading with your local drug dealer to use his scales was written tongue in cheek in case the alleged humor was too subtle for some.

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        • red February 7, 14:27

          good. And drug dealers are common in liberal states. And usually better armed than any of us. Liberal politicians ignored them because in a lib states, there’s is the only growing business, and all of them I knew reinvested in property and other businesses. For politicians, especially dirty cops, dealer are an investment. niio

          Reply to this comment
        • Ransom February 10, 16:39

          Chuck,
          My comment was a follow up on yours, not a rebuttal. Of course, the local drug dealer won’t need those scales anymore as supply will probably become much more difficult. You might get a deal…. LOL

          I used the Lee dippers as an example. Measuring spoons, empty cartridge cases, even measuring cups if you are that motivated/threatened will work. My suggestion is directed to the prep part of it….. weigh out the amounts before you need it and learn what to use for a volume measure. Having that knowledge ahead of time can simplify many processes during the stress of SHTF. ‘Big scoop of A, Small scoops of B’ is always easier than using a scale on a normal day much less under stress.

          That’s why we all read/contribute, no one knows it all no matter what the trolls say…..

          Reply to this comment
  10. Dave February 7, 07:05

    Thermite is fairly easy to make(I’ve made it several times…just for educational purposes), but getting a reliable ignition for it is the hard part. Thin magnesium ribbons or very fine magnesium wire is the best bet. A ‘remote’ trigger isn’t too difficult, but the part that detonates will be toast. When you make this and test it out, make a sand box to put everything in when you ignite it. Once started…it doesn’t stop until it’s all over. Wear good dark welding glasses if you watch it…otherwise you ‘will’ damage your eyes and you could go blind.

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