Org Prep Daily

November 21, 2007

a young chemist = plague

Filed under: lab destruction — milkshake @ 10:45 pm


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.


  1. You, my friend, are an inspiration to all. Especially those who work in boring chemistry labs or emergency rooms.

    Comment by Chemgeek — November 22, 2007 @ 12:18 am

  2. Fantastic post, does sound like you’ve had your quota of luck.
    “they said they wanted to re-create a KGB gas torture chamber there” really does make you sit up and think..

    Comment by DrSnowboard — November 22, 2007 @ 12:26 pm

  3. I made a small amount of bromoacetone once, as a by-product of treating my acetonide-protected compound with NBS. I started crying when it eluted off the column.

    Comment by Handles — November 22, 2007 @ 6:03 pm

  4. At this point what makes feel clumsy and inadequate is that I have never succeeded in making NI3 or acetone peroxide.

    Comment by liquidcarbon — November 22, 2007 @ 6:06 pm

  5. Super cool post!
    I was (still am?) definitely clumsy and inadequate at first–I think I still hold the record for the most broken glassware at my high school.

    Comment by Ψ*Ψ — November 22, 2007 @ 10:42 pm

  6. Liquidcarbon: “May all our devices explode…over the test ranges and never over the cities”

    It was your Livejournal entry that inspired me to write this up.

    Comment by milkshake — November 23, 2007 @ 5:58 am

  7. Great post.
    But I wonder: what is a ‘pubic bus’?

    Comment by PG — November 23, 2007 @ 6:46 am

  8. 🙂 thank you – I just corrected the spelling. (Can’t be done so easily with my other bad habits).

    Comment by milkshake — November 23, 2007 @ 7:14 am

  9. I’ve heard of a similar guy who did lots of chemical experiments as a kid. He’s a professor at a chemistry department in Russia right now and he walks around without a hand which he lost sometime in high school. So, he does computational chemistry.

    You’re lucky you did not get to the level of ‘computational chemistry’.

    Comment by eugene — November 23, 2007 @ 12:32 pm

  10. And then there are young pyrotechnician clowns who don’t live to tell the story… The worst is when others get hurt as result – there was a highschool kid in Prague who made nitroglycerine at home and he brought a bottle to the school to show it to his friends. A teacher confiscated the bottle, shook it and blew his arm off right there, infront of the class.

    Comment by milkshake — November 23, 2007 @ 1:23 pm

  11. The other place young chemist end up is in jail. The allure of making your own drugs can be quite powerful sometimes.

    All we young chemists have to do is find an outlet for our creativity before we end up with a missing hand or a penetrated butthole.

    Comment by tg — November 23, 2007 @ 2:14 pm

  12. It’s a great intro to organic chemistry though – It helps the student if he can sharpen his focus by working towards something he realy wants. The problem with meth home-brewing procedures and Shulgin write-ups is that they made it excessively easy for the chemistry wanna-bees to impress their frends with their leet skilz, by making some real dope at home.

    Cops and prosecutors go hard on garage kids because they are a lot easier to bust than professionally-run giant labs in Mexico or Colombia. The met epidemy made it now completely impossible in US to have even a rudimentary home lab like I used to have as a kid – just the posession of a sep funnel, rubber tubing and conc HCl is enough in most states to get you charged with the intent to manufacture.

    Comment by milkshake — November 23, 2007 @ 2:38 pm

  13. Awesome! Simply awesome! Post of the year… on any blog! Even Beaker is impressed!

    Comment by Bunsen Honeydew — November 23, 2007 @ 3:48 pm

  14. Milkshake, you REALLY want to read John D. CLark’s “Ignition! An informal history of liquid rocket propellants”
    My own attempts at clumsy chemical misdemeanors:

    Comment by Wavefunction — November 23, 2007 @ 4:09 pm

  15. wow.

    my mom used to buy my brother saltpeter at the pharmacy, which he used to make pipe bombs. the pharmacist thought she was trying to slow my dad down…i’m the youngest of 8. i don’t know what mom thought bro was using it for.

    a couple of friends in college played around a lot with nitrogen triiodide and nitrocellulose. one of them made some NI3, let it get fairly dry, and put it in a glass vial. he wasn’t very careful carrying it around…blammo. that was the last of their extracurricular activities.

    mostly, i’m amazed at what an early start you got. i’m a little jealous of that, but DAMN, you are lucky to still be around.

    Comment by j. — November 26, 2007 @ 3:39 am

  16. It is staggering are alive, with all ten fingers, and no seeing eye dog. Well done, sir; you beat a pseudo-Darwin award on numerous occasions!

    Comment by Jose — November 26, 2007 @ 3:17 pm

  17. Awesome, totally awesome. You are an inspiration!

    Comment by Propter Doc — November 27, 2007 @ 1:58 pm

  18. Thanks for all the comments – there was one more stunningly dumb chemistry thing that I did as a kid and forgot to mention: They used to sell ammonium nitrate fertilizer in Prague denaturated with 40% of dolomite, to discourage exactly the kind of experimentation I was after – so I dissolved the fertilizer, filtered off the dolomite and concentrated the solution in a large aluminum pot on a gas stove. Ammonium nitrate is enormously water soluble – I boiled it in hopes of getting the water out and obtaining crystalline stuff – and eventually I noticed the bubbles and liquid were looking little different and the aluminum pot started to sag in the middle – it was softening from the heat of the gas stove flame! It turned out that the stuff that I was heating so vehemently was already a melt and N2O was probably the gas that was bubbling out… Amazingly the aluminum pot did not ignite in the melt. The molten residue solidified alright, after cooling – but I found that ammonium nitrate was awfully hygroscopic, very difficult powder – without getting it all soggy again. And I did not want to repeat the very tedious concentrating the solution so I never made anything based on ammonium nitrate.

    Comment by milkshake — November 27, 2007 @ 3:07 pm

  19. Sounds like you took pyromania and prankery to a nearly unheard-of level. You’re very lucky to be alive!

    Comment by Jordan — November 28, 2007 @ 4:37 pm

  20. We had pure ammonium nitrate available, but it’s really useless for anything except making potassium nitrate and soaking paper in it.

    Comment by liquidcarbon — November 28, 2007 @ 5:15 pm

  21. Hi! Sounds like my youth exactly! Who are you?

    Comment by ebayman — November 28, 2007 @ 5:24 pm

  22. Ammonium nitrate-based explosives require a fairly strong initiation and there are few other details – but it is not difficult to find enough information on the web or figure it out with a sufficient determination – Timothy McVeigh managed and he was dumb as a paddle. (The equipment used for making the Oklahoma truck bomb was basically a shovel and couple of barrels)

    Wyeth-man: I was growing up in Prague, with a translation of the Urbanski book. I have been in the pharma industry for a while and now I am doing the same kind of work in the academia.

    Comment by milkshake — November 28, 2007 @ 6:22 pm

  23. This post reminds me of reading the book about Dr Theodore Taylor called “The Curve of Binding Energy”. Taylor relates the same childhood obsession with chemical explosives, including the naughty placement of nitrogen tri-iodide into keyholes! He got a job at Los Alamos and designed some of the smallest nuclear weapons ever stockpiled, such as the 22 kg “Davy Crockett” bomb for battlefield use, which has a yield of 250 tons of TNT equivalent. Hope no terrorist copies that!

    Comment by nc — November 30, 2007 @ 8:49 pm

  24. The Young Chemist set, with which many chemists in the Eastern Bloc began their carrier, was made not in Bulgaria but in Latvia. (I know that because I am from Bulgaria.) A month ago I saw an almost intact set in a colleague’s junkbox.

    Comment by julian — December 3, 2007 @ 10:53 am

  25. oh, I was half-cursing the creators of the set, not Bulgars as a nation. In fact, I have the most pleasant memories from my vacations there, in 80s. I would love to go on another summer hiking trip in Rila.

    When I got my set in mid 70s (with its strange manual, the box was yellow, with Cyrilics) I had an distinct impression it was made in Bulgaria but I could have been wrong. Or the set was manufactured in one place but the manual was printed somewhere else – the strangest co-operations used to go on in the East Bloc. (I know this because I was doing night shift jobs as a high school kid, in a printing company).

    Comment by milkshake — December 3, 2007 @ 2:07 pm

  26. That’s the trouble with the wars on chemistry, oh, sorry, the war on terror & the war on drugs… The people who’d actually end up in chemistry have all been “medicated” out of their obsession with chemicals and things that go boom by concerned societies everywhere. People who never blew things up, don’t enjoy chemistry, they simply do the job they are given sans imagination. People who blew things up on the other hand, they invent things, they try out the reactions everyone is scared of, why? To see what happens…

    Where would chemistry be if no-one had ever asked, “hmmm, why did that happen?”

    Comment by no1uno — August 30, 2010 @ 7:52 am

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