I had a rather bad fire last Friday. I was washing a large jacketed glass reaction vessel used for polymer scale-ups, after pouring the reaction mixture out, and a tiny particle of potassium hydride (from this poorly quenched reaction) that was adhering to the bottom of the reaction flask ignited just as I was giving the flask a proper acetone rinse. So I had a flaming flask in my hands + burning hands + flaming sink in front + a whole bunch of wash bottles ablaze next to me (plastic wash bottles peeing their burning solvents around…) A colleague promptly put the fire out with a mid-sized CO2 fire extinguisher before the flames spread any further. There was no damage to the lab, my fingers or the reaction mixture but it was a pretty scary situation – considering how fires in organic labs can get out of control so fast.
Potassium hydride pyrophoric nature is well documented in the literature; from my limited experience I would say KH is quite comparable to potassium metal in its tendency to flame up. But there are some aspects that make KH more treacherous than K metal: KH in paraffin or mineral oil is docile and only when the oil or wax is washed off the pyrophoric nature becomes apparent. Also, the KH appearance (a grayish-white powder) is less dramatic than shiny low-melting globules of K metal and one cannot easily guess whether KH is fully consumed or quenched by the sediment appearance if the reaction produces inorganic precipitate of its own. Also, I noticed that some alcohols react with KH in THF surprisingly sluggishly while reaction of other alcohols is prompt – I believe the solubility of the K-alkoxide in THF plays a role and the KH particles may get coated by a poorly soluble material and laze about the bottom – and then at some later point flame up when least expected.
Since K-alkoxides have significant reactivity advantages over Na and Li alkoxides in alkylation reactions, and since the easy-to-handle KH formulation in paraffin wax is now commercially available, it is likely that KH will get used increasingly more often in place of NaH. Despite its innocuous appearance KH is less tame than NaH; having unreacted KH excess present in the reaction mix makes it prone to auto-ignition during the workup if the reaction was not quenched with care.
Note 1: I was impressed how good is CO2 extinguisher for large solvent fires – and it leaves no mess behind. I don’t think a dry powder extinguisher would have worked nearly as well.
Note 2: Taber et. al.: Tet. Letters 51 (2010), 3545-6