Org Prep Daily

November 25, 2008

More lab disasters 2

Filed under: lab destruction — milkshake @ 6:06 pm

When I was in high school, I got free run in a chemistry lab that belonged to a youth center. I was trying to synthesize papaverine, and this was completely above my ability (and the lab resources) but I was very persistent. The key building blocks for papaverine are homoveratric acid and homoveratryl amine, and I set out to make them by myself: I had several bottles of catechol to start from – my problem was how to methylate it, I could not just buy stuff – I had to go by with what was in the stockroom.

First I made lots of methyl iodide, from red P + iodine and methanol – refluxing and distilling it on the bench so I know how methyl iodide smells – but the methylation was messy. Next I tried to make dimethyl sulfate from sulfuryl chloride and methoxide in situ, and it worked to some degree – the vanilla smell of guaiacol was everywhere – but again I could not isolate anything from the mess. So my next idea was to use diazomethane made from nitrosomethyl urea.

So I was cooking and then distilling AcNH2 on a grand scale, from AcOH and urea – and this went quite well (apart from the all-pervasive mice urine-like smell of acetamide) and then I was to carry out the Hoffman degradation.  When one uses concentrated aq KOH and bromine, the in-situ generated MeNCO reacts with a second molecule of acetamide to produce MeNHCONHAc, an intermediate for preparing nitroso methylurea; I needed it for a large-scale diazomethane reaction so I did it on a mol scale on the first run.

The procedure called for Br2 to be added into AcNH2 + 30% aq KOH mix in a 1L flask, then gently heating the mix until a rapid gas evolution commenced. Since I scaled up the preparation by a factor of twenty on the first run, and I did not have a 20L flask, I used the biggest flask I could find, a 4L Erlenmeyer, and loaded the stuff up; it all fit in there. But then, the mix did not wait to be gently heated and instead jumped out at me all at once.

I usually did my work without glasses, on the bench – but this one time I put goggles on and it was well worth it. The hot KOH + KOBr solution rained all over the place and bleached my hair blond; also my T-shirt and jeans ended up with white vertical stripes. A colleague stood nearby and saw the whole thing and dragged me into shower.

Eventually I did make some nitrosomethyl urea and diazomethane but never finished the papaverine project. No explosion, poisoning or other injuriy happened during all these crazy experiments. But there was another like-minded highschool kid, repeatedly working on some chemistry involving acetone cyanohydrine, and he was making it from acetone and NaCN, in our little fume hood with a lousy fan-driven exhaust. I think he never finished his project either but I remember once we were going down the stairway and he was saying “I don’t know if this exhaust really works ’cause I was smelling hydrogen cyanide this time a lot” and then we got outside there were two dead pigeons on the grass and we looked up and the exhaust from our fume hood was looming right above us…

November 13, 2008

More lab disasters

Filed under: lab destruction — milkshake @ 3:41 am

Ψ*Ψ has a new post on undergrad lab disasters, I would like to add few more of my own making, from two decades ago:

In the junk-room of our chemistry department I found an ancient belt-driven vacuum pump that operated on 380V three-phase AC. I brought it from the basement into our freshly-renovated lab, put it on the bench, plugged it in to see if it worked – and it did. Unfortunately the 380V AC wiring must have been wrong in our lab (we never used 380V plug in there before) or the phase order in the pump itself was switched. At any rate, the motor started spinning backward and the pump pumped out its oil from the inlet hole at once –  a gallon of black muck that hasn’t been changed for eons. The intlet had a short piece of rubber hose on and it worked like a nozzle – directing the stream of goodness at the high ceiling, right in the middle of the room whence it rained down all over the place. This mishap actually shut down our lab for two weeks as the oil-soaked plaster had to be knocked off down to the brick and concrete in order to make the new plaster stick.

Some months later I was working as a guest student in another lab (in another building, at another school) – and they had a gas-powered water heaters installed above the sinks because their building lacked central hot water. It was a strange and dangerous thing to have in the lab (right next to the  organic solvent bottles); and the last person in the lab always made sure to turn off the pilot lights before leaving.  One early morning I was washing my hands and water was coming out freezing cold – the  pilot light was off –  so I grabbed matches and without turning off the running water (and the stream of gas), l lit the pilot.  A yellow fireball shot up and the casing flew off from the heater infront of me, with an impressive bang. When my ears stopped ringing  I could hear a calm voice from the opposite corner of the lab where a colleague sat at her desk: “Mr. Borivoj, I promise that the next time I’ll pour my coffee over you.”

The same colleague a week later decided to clean up and inventorize all her glassware – she emptied her drawers and put it all on a long bench. Meanwhile I was distilling 0.5L of old and nasty-looking  N-methylmorpholine to which I added lots of calcium hydride – and when I finished I had CaH2-rich leftover sludge in the distillation flask. I was asking around if it was OK to quench it with ethanol (I had quenched NaH and BuLi before) and a faculty dude said I should go right ahead; I did not realize they probably did not work much with CaH2 in that lab.  So I was carefully adding ethanol with cooling, the bubbles were coming out, calm and nice.  One hour later (back from lunch) I added some more ethanol – no bubbling anymore – so I was certain I could pour that into the waste, and I went to the sink to dilute the sludge with water a bit so that I could pour it out. Suddenly it became clear that ethanol does not really quench CaH2, and water does. The  mud volcano in my hands erupted away, spewing the hot lime and fishy amine on the nearest bench – all over that clean and inventoried glassware. The owner again took it  calmly – she just muttered “We have to assign you a working space in the hallway”…

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