Low explosives such as smokeless powder, black powder, and black powder substitutes have been used in illicit pipe bombings throughout the United States. Some of the newer black powder substitutes are formulated with ascorbic acid, which gradually decomposes as the powder ages, making it difficult if not impossible for the forensic chemist to identify it by traditional bulk techniques. A sensitive method for the identification of residual levels of ascorbic acid in black powder substitutes is presented. Powder samples are extracted with a mixture of acetonitrile and bis(trimethylsilyl)acetamide (BSA), which converts carboxylic acid and alcohol functional groups to trimethylsilyl esters and ethers, respectively. Samples are then analyzed by gas chromatography-mass spectrometry (GC-MS). Results have shown that trace amounts of ascorbic acid can be identified at detection limits that are well below those for traditional bulk techniques. Degradation products for ascorbic acid (hydroxylated carboxylic acids, furanones, and lactones) can also be detected.
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