Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Bangs, flames and doubtful claims

In my chemistry-set days my main interests were discovering the most exciting explosive mixtures and finding out what gave the most violent and lurid flames when ignited. I made gunpowder of course, who hasn’t? But I also made mixtures of my own, usually with a good pinch of iron filings to get plenty of crackling red-hot sparks, plus magnesium for combustion ferocity. Most of my mixtures produced choking clouds of sulphur dioxide which meant I often had to vacate my laboratory (shed) until the atmosphere had cleared. 

Another thing I made was nitrogen triiodide from ammonia and iodine, which as you may know is easily made and highly explosive, being very sensitive to shock. As soon as it dries out it is liable to go off with a satisfying bang and a purplish puff of iodine vapour.

I also remember comparing notes on these home experiments with a lad at school. He also conducted a range of fiery experiments at home, but one day he went a step further than I’d ever contemplated – he claimed to have made nitroglycerine.

Now nitroglycerine is easy enough to make in principle if you have the chemicals, but to make it at home without serious mishap is not quite so easy without special reaction vessels and a reliable cooling system. Very dangerous otherwise. 

To an enthusiast, the dangers and difficulties were all pretty obvious so I immediately had my doubts about his claim. He was a bit of a nutter, but surely he didn't have the resources to go that far? Somehow it put a damper on our mutual enthusiasm and I still don’t know if he actually did make nitroglycerine. As a youngster I doubted it - as an adult I'm pretty sure he didn't.


Demetrius said...

There is an analogy to be drawn. It is as though the financiers were allowed to move on from making simple compounds in their sheds to making monetary nitroglycerine.

James Higham said...

I made gunpowder of course, who hasn’t?

Well, of course and who hasn't set fire to some great public building either? :)

You're quoted at my place, sir and thanks for cheering up the evening.

A K Haart said...

D - yes we should stick to sheds.

JH - thanks.