I started reading about chemistry around the age of 8 – searching the compendiums and textbooks for ways of making explosives. The next Christmas I got a Young Chemist set made in Bulgaria with its awfully mistranslated manual. The set was a great disappointment – very dull and didactic experiments: calcium carbonate plus diluted HCl, copper sulphate and iron wire, and so on. I sweet-talked my mom into buying some additional chemicals for my set. The photo-supply shop had few interesting things I wanted. Soon after I was oxidizing acidified KI solution with hydrogen peroxide…
I was hoping to make NI3.NH3 but the recipe I knew called for using solid iodine. (My dad once mentioned the compound as we were gleefully “disposing” old firecrackers, gunpowder and nitrocellulose which he stashed away as a teenager, then many years later re-discovered in a shed.) I was getting only iodine solution from KI – it would not precipitate; probably an excess of HCl and KI kept I2 dissolved as triiodide. My mom worked in administration of the Academy of Science. As I accompanied her on a 1st May parade I was introduced to a chemist from some institute. (I think mom was bragging a little about my “advanced” interests). I shared my frustration about my attempts at preparing solid iodine. “But you won’t need solid iodine for nitrogen triiodide – add ammonia to your iodine solution, NI3 should crash out” the helpful man suggested. Two weeks later I was already in a hospital with burned face and eyes. I accidentaly detonated a spoonfull of dried NI3 few inches from my face, with no glasses. The explosion blew the window and my eardrums; I was back from the hospital in a week and I could see again – but the iodine-stained corneas made my eyes extremely sensitive and I wore dark glasses for months afterwards. I also lost the sense of smell for a long time – it came back eventually but even now my nose is not that discriminating. (Probably a good thing, for a chemist.)
There was a ban on experiments after the explosion: It took me months to talk my parents back into letting me grow some colorful crystals of chromium salts. Soon I was playing with calcium carbide and silver acetylide (we cracked an expensive garden window pane, by igniting a plastic bag filled with acetylene+oxygen mix) and I was making flash powders with permanganate and Al powder that was sold in drugstores as a silver paint pigment. As not to alarm my folks I covered up a badly scorched hand (the mishap also painted my face in Halloween style with the Mn + Al flashbang ashes). But then I got my parents really furious and for such a simple mistake: A solid mix of urea peroxide and sodium dithionite self-ignites when moistened and as it burns rapidly it produces a stinky smoke-bomb- all kids in Prague in 80s knew this, it was the Menthos-and-soda of our generation. Dithionite was sold as a textile-dye remover, the urea peroxide tablets were available in hair color treatment kits. I left a bag of the dithionite powder in my shirt pocket, mom put the shirt together with the rest of the laundry to soak in a tub. The entire load of our family shirts (and mom’s undies) got bleached into funky splotchy pattens
I was also making a bromoacetone tear-gas on the balcony on a 100g scale – by a procedure that I figured out by myself – it used acetone mixed with solid KBr to which was added a pre-mixed 30% hydrogen peroxide solution with 40% battery-grade sulfuric acid, very gradually through the reflux condenser. (I had no 3-neck flask or addition funnel and the cooling water was fed into the condenser by gravity, from a tubing dipped into a bucket) The bromine was generated and consumed in situ, the mix heated itself to reflux, the exothermic reaction was controlled by the rate of acid+peroxide addition and there was no induction period (unlike with Br2 + acetone) . When all Br2 color disapeared the mix cooled down and the product layer separated in the fridge as gorgeously refractive pale yellow heavy blobs…
As this was going on in the 7th grade I naturally had to bring a sample of my bromoacetone to the school, to share the excitement of discovery. I was sitting way in the back on a math class and I did not know the bottle was leaking – the fumes must have been spreading away, to the front of the class – I did not understand why the other kids were getting antsy and reaching for hankies; eventually the tear front made it all the way to the teacher and she figured something was up – she evacuated the class and I “explained” that it was a glue for the scale-model plane building club that I attended after the school. I also isolated few mL of neat essence of cinnamon and of cloves by steam distillation, from about half a pound of the spices. My schoolmates put the oil eagerly all over themselves, undiluted – and complained when the cinammon oil burned their skin. And the concentrated cinnamon reek is very tiresome – our class was like a potpoury shop for days.
I also distilled a crude mix containing ethyl mercaptan, made from a solution of EtBr and KHS. EtSH is best described as the essence of ass, and it has an incredibly low odor treshold. We gased a public transport bus with it: the driver was yelling, everybody running out – a great fun we thought at the time. Then my junior highschool buddies spilled the mercaptan in the school basement – they said they wanted to re-create a KGB gas torture chamber there. The heating gas pipe main control valve was in the basemet and soon the fire trucks were converging on the school with sirens blaring. We were evacuated for a suspected gas leak and no classes for us that afternoon. (I was very frightened we get nailed for this stunt).
While doing all this I managed to have some glass splinters taken out from my corneas for the second time as my home-made ignition cord short-ignited and a glass tube stuffed with acetoneperoxide blew into my face. I was making this material at home in multigram quantities – and I used a heat gun to dry it (the vapors had a pleasant minty smell…) As the powder was too fluffy I melted it on the kitchen stove, using a long cocktail spoon and toaster hotplate – and I melt-casted the liquid; the operation resulted in a loud bang and bent spoon whenever a drop spilled on the hotplate. (The neighbors soon came and asked if I was discharging a gun at home…) I was also buying half-kilo chunks of sulfur and I milled it in our fancy electric coffee-grinder. My “burritos” made from permanganate, sulfur and aluminum foil produced giant white fireworks, with burning metal flying into every direction.
Eventually I got pretty close to getting expelled in the junior high: I liked to put a powdered acetonperoxide on my palm and I would ignite it: From a tiny heap of fluffy powder the deflagration produced an enormous gasoline-like fireball. (They still use benzoyl peroxide in Holywood for their exploding-car special effects). It was a rather cold flame and it was shooting upwards from the palm so it did not burn me. A stunning effect – and I was completely oblivious to what could have happen if the deflagration turned into detonation- until the day when I brought a hard pellet that I made by gluing the powder together with a collodium solution. To showcase it to my classmates, I intended to lit it on my palm but then I had a second thought and did it on the bench instead – in the classrom during a break. The pellet went off with a bang like a shotgun blast. I found myself explaining to our principal that it was a mere blank signal cartridge – a less involved story than the one about home-made materials…
My moronity was gathering momentum: One day a large roll of home-made ignition cord (made from a twine soaked in a NaClO3 weed-killer solution) self-ignited in my pocket as it got into contact with red phosphorus on a matchbox strip. I actually stuffed the ignition cord roll into my jacket breast pocket and I put a box from jumbo-sized fireplace matches on top. The box had no matches in – it was filled with ten polyethylene tube bombletts packed with acetonperoxide. I put this all into the breast pocket of my jacket, the cord and the box with the charges – and I zipped the jacket up (it was difficult – the jacket was rather tight and the breast pocket overstuffed). My parents were already doing checks on me – I was trying to sneak out my stuff. Suddenly the whole roll of the ignition cord caught on fire on me, with a tremendous hiss. Before I could even unzip and throw the jacket off the roll burned itself down and through the jacket, it rolled under the bed leaving a 4-inch wide scorched carpet trail behind. I looked at the paper match box with the explosive charges still in my pocket – it was charred but it did not burn through; the ignited roll of cord burrowed itself down so fast… I was finally shaken enough to quit: it was obvious even to me that if I put that cord roll into my breast pocket ontop of the box with charges, I would surely become a suicide bomber. I paid for the carpet and jacket, I destroyed the acetonperoxide and never tempted my luck with explosives again.
Shortly after the last incident with explosives I got access to a decent laboratory owned by a youth center – and I started doing a real chemistry, namely I was trying to synthesize papaverine. I soon found that making bangs and fires was dull – compared to the excitement of synthetic chemistry. With the free run of the cabinets stocked with NaN3, picric acid and nitromethane there was no challenge in making things go off. I was almost unsupervised and I had several bad accidents in that lab – the nitrations and brominations that I mixed up on a grand scale tended to erupt into volcanoes; from then on I was busy trying not to produce the bangs and fires.
I continued to be an exceptionally bad experimental chemist ever since and I got fired from five labs in three institutions in Prague within few years there. The mishaps I had in these labs were bot grotesque and scary and I ruined a staggering amount of expensive glassware also. I earned a nick “Bořivoj” – it translates as “the man who tears down the places”.
So if you are just starting your chemistry career and if you think you are clumsy and inadequate, don’t feel that way. Everybody has a personal quota to fill – of dumb things to do, of fume hoods to set on fire and the labs to flood. But remeber to wear the protective glasses. Never make acetonperoxide or iodonitride and never load up mol-scale preparations on the first run.