"it was even thicker than planned, for a brief exciting interlude"
March 23, 2013 9:56 AM   Subscribe

How Not To Do It: Chromium Trioxide
Back in grad school, I had an undergraduate assistant one summer, a guy who was pretty green. I'll refer to him by an altered form of his nickname, henceforth as Toxic Jim. I shouldn't be too hard on him, I guess: I was a summer undergrad in my time, too, and I wasn't a lot of help to anyone, either. But TJ did manage to furnish me with some of my more vivid lab stories in his brief time in my fume hood. One morning I showed him how to make PCC. That's pyridinium chlorochromate for the non-organic chemists out there, an oxidizing agent that doesn't seem to be used as much as it was 15 or 20 years ago. Even in '85, you could buy it, but the freshly-made stuff was often better. It certainly looked nicer. Like all the Cr(VI) salts, it has a vivid color, in this case a flaming orange. I shouldn't say "flaming;" that's getting ahead of the story. . .
posted by the man of twists and turns (30 comments total) 41 users marked this as a favorite
 
This guy's blog was posted a long time ago and I still like to read it, even though I never got past 10th grade chemistry. He really makes chemists sound like mad wizards of elemental magic.

He's a great writer- even though I don't understand half the words in this story, I certainly get the gist.
posted by showbiz_liz at 10:18 AM on March 23, 2013 [2 favorites]


Great story. Some of the comments are worth reading too:
I got my wet chemistry education in New England. The 'acid to water' catch phrase I was taught had a similar, but Boston spin to it, "Acid to watta, just like ya otta."
posted by grouse at 10:20 AM on March 23, 2013 [2 favorites]


As he notes in the comments, Toxic Jim is the same guy as the previously mentioned Toxic John, of "How Not to Do It: Distilling Benzene."
posted by limeonaire at 10:21 AM on March 23, 2013


I've seen several of this guy's chem-lab stories. He tells a good yarn -- makes me wonder if I went into the right line of work! He's been on the Blue before, too.
posted by spacewrench at 10:21 AM on March 23, 2013 [1 favorite]


Ethyl acetate is a pretty poor substitute for hydrochloric acid, most of the time, when you stop to think about it.

I'll say!

What?
posted by cjorgensen at 10:25 AM on March 23, 2013 [8 favorites]


So, this is chemistry porn with a "happy ending"?
posted by HuronBob at 10:26 AM on March 23, 2013


All of what I'm reading is like, "Toxic Jim, what a moron amirite," when the real problem is clearly, "I left an unlabelled flask full of god-knows-what out."
posted by Sys Rq at 10:31 AM on March 23, 2013 [6 favorites]


That was amusing, but very trivial compared to the stuff he won't work with.

Like FOOF (dioxygen difluoride)

"At seven hundred freaking degrees, fluorine starts to dissociate into monoatomic radicals, thereby losing its gentle and forgiving nature. But that's how you get it to react with oxygen to make a product that's worse in pretty much every way ..."
posted by cstross at 10:42 AM on March 23, 2013 [7 favorites]


When I worked at a big pharmaceutical company, I took two trips to the safety showers. The first time, I got trifluoroacetic acid splashed on me in a lab. The second time was in a production area when a valve failed and morpholine rained from the ceiling.

The third time when I should have hit the safety shower was when a coworker didn't properly lock out or completely empty a big tank of acetonitrile. I got drenched head to toe. I didn't want to get him fired (he was on thin ice) so I went two floors down, ditched my uniform, took a shower and put on a new uniform. The next day, an old timer pointed out that I would have made a good torch if I had happened across a spark. Not to mention that it's a cyanide compound.

I was glad when I moved to process automation and away from direct contact with chemicals that could kill me. Like cyanogen bromide.
posted by double block and bleed at 11:05 AM on March 23, 2013 [8 favorites]


In the FOOF entry, I find it quite charming that, as a profession, part of chemistry is simply "let's see what happens when we add that to this."
posted by fatbird at 11:06 AM on March 23, 2013 [1 favorite]


A statistical sociologist specializing in epidemiology once joked to me that sociologists have the highest brain cancer rates among academics except for chemists and chemical engineers, and I said that's because when those guys get a new building, they give the old one to the sociology department.
posted by jamjam at 11:30 AM on March 23, 2013 [17 favorites]


Jamjam, I think that may have literally just happened where I went to grad school!
posted by en forme de poire at 11:51 AM on March 23, 2013


Ha, cyanogen bromide. I remember being an undergrad and getting the advice, "if you smell almonds for no reason, GTFO."
posted by en forme de poire at 12:00 PM on March 23, 2013 [2 favorites]


Sys Rq:
All of what I'm reading is like, "Toxic Jim, what a moron amirite," when the real problem is clearly, "I left an unlabelled flask full of god-knows-what out."
I don't see where he mentions the labelledness or otherwise of the flasks. He does mention specifically that it was TJ who had mixed the HCl and thus presumably had the responsibility to label the Erlenmeyer correctly.

I suppose you could say it was Lowe's fault for letting an undergrad into a lab without locking up all the dangerous things first.

I have no tales of my own because my lab is disappointingly danger-free. But for anyone who hasn't seen it I recommend this classic tale of the liquid nitrogen tank that laid waste to a chemistry building. "Both the pressure relief and rupture disks had failed for some reason in the past, so they'd been removed and sealed off with metal plugs." Hilarious consequences ensue.
posted by pont at 12:03 PM on March 23, 2013 [1 favorite]


"Ha, cyanogen bromide. I remember being an undergrad and getting the advice, "if you smell almonds for no reason, GTFO."

LOL

As a masters student my lab was right next to another one that works with hydrogen sulfide producing organisms so I got to smell it every so often. It is a particularly scary gas because, even though it stinks, it will deaden your sense of smell before it kills you. So when you stop smelling hydrogen sulfide, you can never really be sure from smell alone whether that is because the hazard is gone or because you are about to die.
posted by Blasdelb at 12:05 PM on March 23, 2013 [11 favorites]


I only had one lab incident in my brief chemistry experience. I needed to mix up some dilute sulfuric acid to use in small amounts over a few weeks. I thought I would save a step and mix it straight into the storage bottle.

Mixing sulfuric acid with water releases quite a bit of heat. Before I knew it, the brown glass bottle shattered and the table was covered with a layer of 6M sulfuric acid. Turns out those bottles aren't made out of the low-expansion borosilicate glass (Pyrex) they use for flasks and beakers.

I kept my cool and spread about a pound of sodium bicarbonate over the table to neutralize the acid. Never gonna make that mistake again.
posted by sleek 1999 roadster at 12:33 PM on March 23, 2013 [1 favorite]


I spent one entertaining summer working with my back to the chromic acid fumehood, while watching groups of harried grad students come and go. As far as I know, none of them ever read or used the safety maintenance procedures attached to the front of the hood. The procedure manual's cover was a copy of a news item with the headline, "Six Killed in Fumehood Explosion!"
posted by sneebler at 12:54 PM on March 23, 2013 [1 favorite]


I had a chemistry teacher who described the somewhat laxer safety standards in his day. They included sucking chemicals up into a pipette with one's mouth rather than using the little ball thingy (it has been a good long while since I took chemistry), as it was deemed faster and not really that dangerous.

He recounted how he stopped doing that when he mouth pipetted benzene, not realizing that the drop in pressure would mean he was not sucking liquid benzene but inhaling benzene vapor. His description of stopping, coughing, then spitting out a layer of dead skin from his mouth was quite memorable.
posted by Grimgrin at 1:02 PM on March 23, 2013 [1 favorite]


I also like his post about things that ignite sand.
It is apparently about the most vigorous fluorinating agent known, and is much more difficult to handle than fluorine gas. That’s one of those statements you don’t get to hear very often, and it should be enough to make any sensible chemist turn around smartly and head down the hall in the other direction.

The compound 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.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 2:09 PM on March 23, 2013


His description of stopping, coughing, then spitting out a layer of dead skin from his mouth was quite memorable.
posted by Grimgrin at 1:02 PM on March 23 [+] [!]

eponysterical
posted by echolalia67 at 2:16 PM on March 23, 2013 [1 favorite]


"I had a chemistry teacher who described the somewhat laxer safety standards in his day. They included sucking chemicals up into a pipette with one's mouth rather than using the little ball thingy (it has been a good long while since I took chemistry), as it was deemed faster and not really that dangerous."

This is a real thing, its called mouth pipetting, which in google should get you a ton of PDFs labeled THE HAZARDS OF MOUTH PIPETTING. For those following along, essentially pipettes are long thin hollow glass tubes with markings on them that you use to suck measured quantities of liquids into and then deposit somewhere else. For them to work you need something on the non-business end to do the sucking, that then release. These days most labs use rubber balls that handily accomplish all of these tasks and dont involve sucking potentially hazardous liquids towards your mouth, however they are a relatively new invention and glass pipettes have been around since at least the 1830s - being operated by mouth pipetting. I won't describe the precise technique for doing so, but it involves using your mouth to suck up more liquid than you need and then placing your thumb over the cap and using that to precisely dispense liquid back into the original container until you have the right amount and then releasing your thumb fully when you have the pipette over the liquid's destination. While most of the danger was removable, at least within living memory, by using a trap attached to a flask that would grab any liquids you sucked up to quickly - it was still pretty fucking dangerous depending on what you were working with.

That said, when I get old and grumpy I'll likely be among the last researchers alive to have ever mouth pipetted in a real non-food-safe lab in a western country. It was while working under a real old timer who taught me the technique for a specific series of experiments I was doing with E. coli B. They involved necessarily very tight timepoints performed in triplicate, which involved three well trained people performing 58 seconds of frenzied work around one flask every 60 seconds for half an hour. This was not only not possible to do with any of the various kinds of pipette bulbs, which require an extra step to put the bulb onto the pipette and sometimes charge it, but extraordinarily dangerous with three workers having required hospitalization over the forty year history of the lab from pipettes breaking and getting shoved into or through hands. Mouth pipetting on the other hand has caused zero injuries over the life of the (entirely BSL1) lab and even then the failure state that involves an unpleasant mouthful of a lab strain of E. coli that hadn't encountered a living system since 1932 and an evening on the toilet with a pissed off intestinal immune system seemed a lot more attractive than the failure state of the safe method involving a long glass shard sticking out the other end of my hand or colleague.

I've heard stories of stupidest stupid shit involving mouth pipetting back in the day from old timers though, using it for P32, aspirating a high titer of herpes virus and needing to breathe through a tube for two weeks, I even already knew benzene did that from the experience of a certainly different old timer. Heck even now, I know labs in the former Soviet Union that routinely mouth pipette chloroform from bottles left open on benches - apparently the fumes tastes sweet, can be gotten used to, and tobacco (smoked freely in the lab) effectively counteracts the obvious effects - who knew.
posted by Blasdelb at 2:47 PM on March 23, 2013 [7 favorites]


This is why I voted for Mitt Romney. This science stuff is really getting out of hand.
posted by MattMangels at 3:20 PM on March 23, 2013 [2 favorites]


His description of stopping, coughing, then spitting out a layer of dead skin from his mouth was quite memorable

Sounds implausible, I wonder if he imagined it?
posted by benzenedream at 3:57 PM on March 23, 2013 [1 favorite]


I really liked this line: "The sulfur chemistry of FOOF remains unexplored, so if you feel like whipping up a batch of Satan's kimchi, go right ahead."
posted by benito.strauss at 5:13 PM on March 23, 2013


From the comments: There is Wikipedia picture of a giant (size of an arm) ampoule holding 1.36 kilo of cesium metal, made in USSR. You see, the classless society cannot be built by faint-hearted cadres.
posted by Joe in Australia at 7:01 PM on March 23, 2013


I agree that chemistry is the science of putting two or more things together to see what happens. I remember in one lab at university, an adventurous sort wanted to see what happened if he held a lighter above an open Dewar flask of liquid oxygen...


His monument was an inch deep crater in the bench, and a lifetime of picking glass out of his face.
posted by arzakh at 7:10 PM on March 23, 2013


Holy moly, Lowe's blog is a bigger time-sink than TV Tropes. Every hair-raising tale is guaranteed at least a dozen equally good counterparts in the comments. I particularly enjoyed the delivery on this one:
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.
posted by pont at 12:55 AM on March 24, 2013 [4 favorites]


This is not terror inducing or anything like that, but I have occasion to go into a working lab that does something with a big Agilent machine and some kind of acid. I think it's standard HCl, but it could be H2SO4. Anyway, the complaint is "computer fan making noise" or "computer will not start up". I invariably get to the machine and the inside is covered with a greasy film that has oxidized everything it can. You don't see many rusty computers that make your hands burn. I dutifully replace the affected components, and while washing my hands before they disintegrate, mention that they should probably get a fume hood. Or at least turn the ventilation on. I feel sorry for the poor workers' mucus membranes...

OK, there *was* that time I accidentally made phosgene gas while trying to clean out the carburetor of a running lawnmower. Turns out, brake cleaner and carburetor cleaner are not interchangeable.

(Which reminds me of the time I was getting gas, and a diesel nearby wouldn't start. There was obviously something very wrong with it, because it had just been running moments ago. So the operator of the vehicle steps out and starts spraying starting fluid into the intake. A lot of starting fluid. You know that early episode of "Family Guy" where Peter hurts his knee and does that inhale-ahhh thing for an inappropriately long time? As the guy was continuing to spray what seemed like half a can of ether into this motor, I got that same tensiony feeling. Then I started giggling because I knew it was going to make a hilarious noise once they tried to start the truck. I was not disappointed. It sounded like six sledgehammers striking an anvil before it again died.)
posted by gjc at 3:30 AM on March 24, 2013 [2 favorites]


en forme de poire: "Ha, cyanogen bromide. I remember being an undergrad and getting the advice, "if you smell almonds for no reason, GTFO.""

If you smell cyanogen bromide, it may very well be too late.
posted by double block and bleed at 1:21 PM on March 24, 2013 [1 favorite]


cstross: I found the FOOF entry from a certain story that featured it as the oxidizer to a corrosive radioactive neurotoxin rocket fuel.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 9:43 PM on March 24, 2013 [1 favorite]


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