Friday, March 14, 2008

More Man Stuff

Ok, so I haven't blogged in three days. After all that talk about court rulings, and First Principles, and armed rebellion (or especially the lack thereof), and all that talk about Game Masters and Death and the Holy Spirit, well...

Things have been a little heavy around here lately, and I needed a break. And my wife needed the computer.

(Well, Ok. She actually needed it to play Civilization. But you know, for the sake of our marriage, I needed to let her do it.)

Several years back I had the chance to hear Jim McGuiggen, a famous Irish preacher, deliver a lesson down at the annual Pepperdine Lectures. He departed from his prepared notes and went off on a tangent, which he thundered down from the pulpit in his very gruff, authoritative-sounding Irish brogue. And then, after he had made a very powerful point, and glared at the audience in dead silence for several seconds to let it sink in, he relaxed; he looked down at his notes; he got this little sheepish look on his face, and he said, "I have no idea how I'm going to get back here." That's a little how I feel at the moment.

So, I figured I'd put something fun out there. At least, I thought it was fun. And I suspect most guys think it's fun. And maybe there are some women out there too.

I don't know where I first saw it, so I can't give a proper hat tip; but here's a link to the website of a chemist. He likes to maintain a category of blog posts entitled Things I Won't Work With, otherwise known as his No Way, No How list.

He had recently had a post in which he talked about putting out chemical fires.

(This is a big deal because there are plenty of chemicals in the world that react with water--certain active metals will do it (lithium, sodium and potassium), especially if the fire's already at high temperature (magnesium, aluminum). For that matter, even a carbon fire--graphite, or even just coal--can be made worse by putting water on it, if it's hot enough; the water reacts with the carbon to form hydrogen gas and carbon monoxide, both of which are flammable, and the latter of which is highly toxic.)

So it is always recommended that chemists keep around a big bucket of sand for emergencies. Sand is made up of oxides of silicon and other stuff, so it's chemically very stable. Dump it on a fire, and it blocks out all the oxygen, soaks up the heat, and just goes inert. No problem!

But this guy asked, is sand safe all the time? Is there anything out there that will react with sand?

The answer to the second question, it turns out, is yes: a reader wrote in with a description of Chlorine Trifluoride, which immediately made Derek Lowe's No Way, No How list. Here are a couple of excerpts from his post.
The compound [is] also a stronger oxidizing agent than oxygen itself, which also puts it into rare territory. That means that it can potentially go on to “burn” things that you would normally consider already burnt to hell and gone, and a practical consequence of that is that it’ll start roaring reactions with things like bricks and asbestos tile.
He quotes from an earlier book that mentions the stuff:
It is, of course, extremely toxic, but that's the least of the problem. It is hypergolic with every known fuel, and so rapidly hypergolic that no ignition delay has ever been measured. It is also hypergolic with such things as cloth, wood, and test engineers, not to mention asbestos, sand, and water-with which it reacts explosively.
For those of you non-chemists out there, hypergolic means that it starts burning the moment the chemicals are mixed; you don't need a spark to start this fire.

For those of you who are into this sort of thing, it's a highly amusing post. And many of the commenters share their war stories too....
Ah, the old sand bucket. Was out in the hall outside the undergraduate labs. Might have been there since benzene was linear. Top was decorated with cigarette butts, dried gum, bits of paper. Then one day down the hall the THF still is being cleaned out - long over due. Thick clumps of whatever ketyl becomes. Inside, a bright shiny prize of sodium metal that disagrees with the optimistic and impatient grad student's use of straight ethanol as cleaning aid. Fire erupts. Extinguished by CO2. Humid day, icy glass, beads of water form and follow gravity down. Into and onto sodium metal. Fire erupts. Extinguished by CO2. Repeat several times until it dawns that CO2 will eventually run out. Send terrified lab mate down the hall to fetch savior: sand bucket! Weight of bucket: about 200 lbs. Skinny grad student risks hernia rushing it back to lab, arrives exhausted, collapses in victory like Pheidippides. Firefighting grad student drops damned CO2 tank, plunges bare hand into sand bucket. Screams in pain - sand has been accreted by age into protoconcrete, impermeable to human flesh, spatulae, metal rulers, etc. Fire meanwhile burns itself out. Sand bucket replaced for next sucker.
Personally, I just love hearing these kinds of stories.

Are there any of my readers who have chemistry-lab stories? I have a few, which I might share someday. There's a lot of humor to be had in the experimental sciences. We had one guy who could make a toxic gas cloud out of anything, generally without meaning to. And then we had people who wound up with weird spots all over themselves from playing with the Silver Iodide--but that's pretty common. I myself got in the habit of cleaning all my glassware with 16-Molar Nitric Acid, until I accidentally burned a hole in the top of the lab table. (Tonya: "Why were you cleaning your glassware with nitric acid?" Me: "Because it worked.")


silvermine said...

Ahh.. former scientist too? Are you really my long lost twin brother or something?

Anyway, I remember back when the fire department told my university that unless we made changes, they refused to go into our chemistry building anymore to fight fires.

The fire that brought them to that point started when some genius of a grad student decided to wash some nice pure sodium down the drain. Three labs and tons of research were destroyed.

My lab, on the other hand, just had a happy little tupperware box in the fridge, with a skull and crossbones, with enough ricin to kill everyone in the country. :P (This was back in the 90's. Hopefully they keep that fridge locked now. Or something.)

Timothy Power said...

Not sure that I'd even qualify as a former scientist. I'm into software engineering now, probably because it doesn't require us to handle hardware. :-)

I did take many hard-core science classes in high school and college, though. And usually, I did quite well in the theoretical/textbook-learning parts of the classes. But I always had lousy lab technique. I remember one teacher accusing me of having stock in Corning, given all the glassware I broke (beakers, stirring rods, test tubes). I guess I was just, um... enthusiastic at stirring those solutions.

But the best science teachers are the ones who are a little nuts. Ever notice this? We had a chemistry teacher who would build makeshift cannons to shoot doggy-chew-toy-footballs across the classroom. He also demonstrated once what a coke-bottle-quantity stoichiometric mix of Hydrogen and Oxygen gas could do when ignited. (Answer: loud bang and six-foot flame exploding from mouth of bottle.)

He kept our attention, that's for sure. We remembered our chemistry.

silvermine said...

at lab technique myself. I remember dropping a huge sequencing place on the floor once. (Nothing like radioactive, carcinogenic glass shards!)

I was trying for theoretical biophysics. Something on a computer where I couldn't hurt anyone. (Like the time I dropped phenol on my leg and didn't notice for a little while...)