Geeky Chemistry

Tangere Curas


Good morning everyone.

When I’m having difficulty constructing a particularly tricky gadget that I’ve thought up and my head feels like it’s full of sand, I’ll often go blunder around on the internet to unclog the noggin, and occasionally that leads to some interesting places. The most recent gem that I’ve found is a blog run by Dr. Derek Lowe, a chemist currently working for some Big Pharma company. He’s put in a fair number of years behind the flask and has a section of his blog devoted to various chemicals that he will not work with, and he talks entertainingly about a number of rather frisky compounds that I find interesting, some of which some of the Emmas deal with regularly. Rather than me.

The video above shows some Frenchmen farting around with such a chemical, chlorine triflouride, a rather potent oxidizer. It’s used in rocket fuels, the semiconductor industry uses it as a solvent, but it’s mostly used for refining uranium these days. How frisky is CLF3? In the video you see it react rather energetically with plexiglass, a latex glove, a leather glove, dirty leather, a gas mask, a block of wood, and a wet glove. But that’s not all. In the 1950’s there was evidently a spill of a ton of CLF3 that burned through a foot of concrete and then another meter or so of sand and gravel before it burned itself out. Obviously, a careful choice of safety gear is paramount before mucking about with this stuff. Dr. Lowe’s post Sand Won’t Save You This Time has more.

Even more exiting than chlorine triflouride is a compound called dioxygen difluoride (formula: O2F2, or FOOF) a compound so frisky that it’s only somewhat stable near it’s freezing point around 88K (that’s about -185C or -300F). Even at that temperature, it reacts violently with just about anything (or maybe anything – who knows) it comes into contact with. It’s rather tricky to make, as Randall Munroe explains in a What if post about pressure cookers, and Dr. Lowe talks about in a Things I Won’t Work With essay.

Anyway, there are many more compounds with a high kapow/gram level discussed at In the Pipeline: Things I won’t Work With.

Note: if you can’t play the above video, here’s the YouTube link.

  • Hey, a Vergil quote! (No, not "Virgil." I don't care that it's been an accepted alternative spelling for the last few centuries.) Part of Dido's lament, no less, from Book IV of the Aeneid:


    or, more or less literally,

    It was not permitted for me to spend life not sharing in marriage, without reproach,
    in the manner of a wild one, and not to touch such cares.

    I hadn't thought of this in terms of fluorine compounds, but that undergraduate course on the Aeneid was a while ago….

    • The Professor

      I tried to pull something from Dante, but memory grows dim.

  • jeepjeff

    "Things I Won't Work With"! It is an excellent blog. Honestly, my favorite entry of his isn't one of the explosive/violently corrosive to anything compounds. It's not even one of the ones that's intensely toxic. It's Thioacetone. A chemical which smells like Satan's Dumpster:

    (Fun fact: it smells so bad, we aren't even sure if it's really thioacetone that smells so bad, or a close relative that's being synthesized by accident…)

    • The Professor

      Yeah, that was an interesting read. I've never been around the stuff and never want to be. Or the isocyanides. Or the selenium compounds…
      My favourite is Hexanitrohexaazaisowurtzitane. Such a bizarre molecule, it's scary just to look at.

      • The Wikipedia article describes it as "developed by the China Lake facility" which is timely as I'm headed there tomorrow for our next round of launching ground-penetrating rockets from tethered weather balloons this weekend.

        The less exciting part is that I'm one of the two drivers for our box truck full of gear, one thousand miles each way.

        • The Professor

          You're going to China Lake this year? That's a helluva drive that you have ahead of you, although it's really pretty if you take the right route. Lots of neat geology down that way.
          Post some pictures when you get back.

          • We also made our annual trip to Black Rock earlier this year; this one's something new. I'm not one of the people officially cleared to take photos on base, but I believe our group will be putting together something.

            We'll head east when we reach Eugene and go south through Klamath Falls and Reno. Most of it should be scenic.

          • The Professor

            Me being a curious fellow, why China Lake? Did you get an invitation to do some testing or does it just sound like a fun place to fire rockets into the ground?
            Yeah, the drive down US 395 is pretty, and it should actually be your fastest route(!). Deserts and mountains and rockets, sounds like a nearly ideal vacation.

          • The BLM decided they didn't want us poking any more holes in their dry lake bed, so that just leaves China Lake or maybe Poker Flat. We can still launch upwards at Black Rock, both from the ground and aloft.

          • The Professor

            No kidding? No more holes allowed in the Black Rock Desert? Maybe it interferes with the mach+ jet car runs…
            Burning Man had better watch their bare butts next year, else they'll be banned butts.

            /I am agog.

          • We always dug out the rockets and filled the holes, so we're at a loss as to why our activities were reclassified as more problematic than so many of the other things that occur there. It's even a seasonal lake, so it tends to erase any residual traces annually. At that, we were only poking a small hole into the upper couple of meters of a layer of loose sediment that extends down two kilometers. As a geologist, I too am agog.

        • That's a long way to go to play a big game of lawn darts.

          • What's worse, we're only bringing two darts.