Org Prep Daily

March 19, 2015

How to leave a strong impression

Filed under: lab destruction — milkshake @ 9:14 pm

I had a summer internship in a natural product synthetic group, a quarter century ago when I was in high school. It was a very nice lab doing medicinal chemistry on cardioglycosides and I really liked it there. But I didn’t realize that the PI from the group wasn’t thrilled to have me (he was asked to take some random kid as a community outreach initiative, and he could not turn it down.) He promptly sent me out of the way, to the library.

In those days, the literature search used to be done with printed indexes of Chemical Abstracts. It was like slogging away through a supermarket shelf filled with phone books; I spent three weeks doing this.

Undeterred, I was nagging the PI to have me try experimental chemistry. Finally, he would let me prepare an acetylated analog of a frog cardanolide, as analytical standard. He instructed me to weight out 10mg of the material, dissolve it in 1mL of pyridine, add 1mL of acetanhydride, and let it sit overnight. Then evaporate, work up with diluted sulfuric acid and DCM.

I tried to hit exactly 10.0mg and it wasn’t easy: it took me forever to weight on precision balances, and meanwhile the guy was looming over me, unimpressed, rolling his eyes. During all this, I somehow put a tip of the little spatula to my lips – the working end of the spatula – and then asked the dour PI if bufanolides were supposed to have such a bitter taste.

For a moment, it wasn’t clear who was going to suffer the heart attack first but eventually the shouting subsided, I got my face wiped clean with alcohol swabs and was ready to set up the experiment.

So I dissolved the material in exactly 1.0 mL of pyridine, then carefully added 1.0 mL of pyridine to it (I must have grabbed the wrong brown bottle, they looked the same) and isolated 9 mg of a very pure starting material a day later; it was my last experiment in that lab…

Whenever I have to work with someone young and unbearable, it helps to recall the many asinine things I did unto others.

August 2, 2012

Shake and pray

Filed under: lab destruction, procedures — milkshake @ 6:16 pm

There is a pop-chem procedure on YouTube that I find astonishing – it beats the Diet Coke and Mentos trick hands down:

A guy loads NaOH dry solid pellets, about 1 inch high, into a plastic bottle, and adds about 2-3 inch thick layer of dry ammonium nitrate granules. Then he fills the bottle with ethyl ether and adds a good chunk of lithium metal foil. He screws the cap on and swirls the mix around. God have mercy.

This man is not building a home-made ANFO for roadside bombing. It is not going to be a Molotov cocktail enhanced with a metal/oxidizer, or perhaps a crude rocket. He is making a batch of meth by the Shake and Bake method. As he ads a pack of ground pseudoephedrine pills, he squirts in a small amount of water, caps the bottle and starts shaking real fast. The water initiates a vigorous and pretty much uncontrollable reaction of the lithium metal with ammonium nitrate. The solids in ether gradually liquify and become a bottom layer sludge – this all is accompanied by evolution of  copious amounts of ammonia and hydrogen. So he shakes this thing by hand and he periodically vents the ammonia by loosening the cap  when the plastic bottle bulges up too much. Eventually the reaction slows down, the majority of lithium metal gets dissolved and the leftover lithium pieces floating on top of ether attain a bronze/copper hue, this marks the completion of the reduction. The ether layer is decanted into a small plastic bag, saturated with HCl gas (evolved from another soda bottle with sulfuric acid and NaCl) and the hydrochloride salt crashes out and is collected on coffee filter and dried. The yield is about 1-2 grams of a hilbilly-grade crank in form of a white powder, from one large pack of pseudoephedrine pills, about 2 hours start to finish. No glassware anywhere.

The method does not scale – attempts at running bigger batches end in self-immolation. A common error is adding too much water at the beginning, which leads to uncontrollable takeoff:  the whole ether/ammonia/NaOH/NH4NO3/Li brew squirts out. One can try and keep the lid on an a bulging soda bottle by a sheer force but as the Li metal floats on top and fast reaction makes the chunks of lithium pretty hot,  they tend to burrow through the plastic wall and an impressive stream of flaming goodness rushes out with them, delivering bright red and yellow-colored ether flames accelerated by ammonium nitrate and lithium metal all over the place. As one skin graft patient observed “I haven’t seen stuff burning this fast before”.

The Shake and Bake meth is a twist on the classic method using Li metal with anhydrous liquid ammonia/ether. The outdoor storage ammonia tanks are now getting watched and additives are introduced into agriculture-grade NH3(l) so as to ruin its usefulness for dissolved metal reduction. Hence the soda bottle modification for ammonia generation in situ. No need to go to fields, now you can cook in the safety of your home…

Note: It would be easy for a manufacturer to add some organic soluble iron compound like Fe(acac)3 or ferrocene to the ether-based starter fluid  and likewise a small pinch of FeSO4 to the ammonium nitrate in cold packs and lye/drain opener. A finely divided iron promptly decomposes Li metal solution in ammonia to lithium amide and so it would make these materials useless for home brewing.

January 30, 2012

Potassium hydride self-ignition

Filed under: lab destruction — milkshake @ 1:40 pm

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[2], 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

July 26, 2011

Expanding liquids break closed vessels

Filed under: lab destruction — milkshake @ 2:05 pm

I had a dumb mishap today: A 100mL Schlenk storage flask with 1,5-cyclooctadiene shattered. When I distilled my COD by vacuum transfer this morning I filled the storage flask all the way to the top and then turned the teflon stopcock shut. There was no head space left in the flask; as the liquid warmed from about 10C up to room temperature it expanded enough to burst the glass.

Coincidentally, my colleague finished off a 20L jacketed glass reactor in a similar manner just yesterday – he was cleaning it after the experiment and the heating jacket was shut off, both the inlet and outlet valves were closed while the jacket was still filled with polysiloxane heat transfer fluid. When the reactor was rinsed with ambient water it suddenly shattered: a small temperature difference was apparently enough to cause the silicone fluid expansion in the jacket and there was no air bubble space nor a tubing attachment whereto the silicone liquid could expand. Looking back, this jacket over-pressurizing would not have happened if one of the valves was left open.

I suppose we proved that liquids are incompressible and expand with heat.

Link: The Great Boston Molasses Disaster

August 11, 2009

Dear ACS journal editors – please return from your vacation soon

Filed under: lab destruction, lit highlights — milkshake @ 1:14 am

dovolena credit: National Geographic ‘Photo of the day’

The spectacular “NaH catalytic” oxidation recently published in JACS has been thoroughly covered elsewhere. I would like to bring your attention to another jaw-dropping paper that just came out in Org Letters:

Acetophenones and 1-aryl-ethanols are oxidized to benzamides by heating the material with 3 – 4 equivs of iodine and ammonia in a pressure vessel. There is only a passing reference and footnote that “nitrogen triodide might form in the mix.”

In fact, NI3.NH3 readily precipitates upon mixing iodine with aqueous ammonia. (The products vary; a gradual iodine addition to a large excess of ammonia yields ammonium iodide and nitrogen.) Nitrogen triodide is a notoriously super-sensitive primary explosive. I spent some time hospitalized in eye clinic when I was ten years old – my corneas got burned with iodine and my eardrums ruptured because of playing with a spoonful of nitrogen triodide. (The window pane flew out and I was thrown to the ground by the blast;  it took me half a year to fully recover and this all was from few grams of dry material going poof, unconstrained). I cannot warn strongly enough against mixing iodine with ammonia in a pressure flask and then heating the stuff up!

The authors run these experiments on a 1 mmol scale and they give no details about the order of addition. Since the transformation is pretty useful – with a good substrate scope and it looks simple enough (its done in water) –  sooner or later some innocent person is bound to mix up a big batch in the wrong way – and as he screws on the the pressure vessel cap he is gonna blow himself up into a mauve cloud

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…

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