Quote of the day—John D. Clark

They were preparing to ship out, for the first time, a one-ton steel cylinder of CTF. The cylinder had been cooled with dry ice to make it easier to load the material into it, and the cold had apparently embrittled the steel. For as they were maneuvering the cylinder onto a dolly, it split and dumped one ton of chlorine trifluoride onto the floor. It chewed its way through twelve inches of concrete and dug a threefoot hole in the gravel underneath, filled the place with fumes which corroded everything in sight, and, in general, made one hell of a mess. Civil Defense turned out, and started to evacuate the neighborhood, and to put it mildly, there was quite a brouhaha before things quieted down. Miraculously, nobody was killed, but there was one casualty —the man who had been steadying the cylinder when it split. He was found some five hundred feet away, where he had reached Mach 2 and was still picking up speed when he was stopped by a heart attack.

John D. Clark
I G N I T I O N !: An Informal History of Liquid Rocket Propellants, page 74
[The chemicals these people created and worked with were incredible. Some compounds caused things like dirt, concrete, and test engineers to immediately catch on fire upon contact. Others would burst into flames upon contact with the ground, burn for a while, and then violently explode. The reactivity and energy content is just mind boggling.—Joe]

14 thoughts on “Quote of the day—John D. Clark

  1. It gets even more interesting when later on he describes various recipes for “storable” liquid fuel designs — in other words, liquid rocket propellants that are stable and can be used when you want to have your rocket stored, fully fueled and ready to fire just as is done with solid fuels. Apparently chlorine trifluoride (the CTF you mentioned) is one substance that fits the bill. Pretty amazing. He also mentions the even more mind bending chlorine pentafluoride. (I don’t remember any chlorine heptafluoride, which my old chemistry memories say should be possible…)
    That whole book is worth reading; it will teach you things about chemistry and engineering, and it’s a boatload of fun as well. The author has a marvelous sense of humor. It’s available online, free download, readily found in search.

  2. My first job out of collage I worked for a chemical company that made several pyrophoric chemicals. We also used sodium, lithium and magnesium. In case of a fire the rule was call the fire department but don’t let them in. Most of the stuff we made was pretty reactive with water.

    I still remember our little safety mantra, trichlorosilane has no friends!

    • Yup. I found out about chlorine trifluoride from a blog article by Derek Lowe, category “Stuff I won’t work with”, title “Sand won’t save you now”. As in: sand will put out certain fires that water won’t — but it doesn’t help here because CTF eats right through sand, rock, and concrete. Look for that blog, by the way; if you liked this book, you’ll really enjoy Derek’s blog too.

    • “In case of a fire the rule was call the fire department but don’t let them in.”

      My first job out of college was as an operator at a test reactor that had a liquid sodium test loop along with the associated filling and sampling systems. We had a similar rule for the sodium handling areas. As an aside, usually when a “normal” fire alarm went off the on-site firefighters would run over you to get to the affected zone. When we had a sodium fire, they came up to operator’s desk and politely asked, What do you want us to do?”

  3. Unofficial copies are widely available as PDF files. As a mechanical engineer, this has to be to most hilarious book on chemistry I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading (&re-reading).

  4. The energy levels in rocketry, especially in space flight, are just awesome.

    Interestingly, the overlap between those who say we use “too much energy” and those who think manned space flight is cool, is quite large. I can only assume that they want it all for themselves and their ilk, and thus are not hypocrites in the strict sense.

  5. It was an interesting book. Those folks must have been either fearless, foolish, or incredibly brave (probably on the wrong side of all three)…

    • Yup. The same goes for people who did the initial research into those wild chemicals. Derek Lowe’s blog has frequent references to them, a number can be found in Germany. He points out that anytime you see a formula involving a whole pile of nitrogen atoms you can be certain you’re dealing with danger. So to make it your mission to attempt to synthesize previously unknown compounds of that description, and investigate their properties, is a pretty amazing thing to do. Especially when some of them have fun properties like “detonates on contact with water vapor” or “unstable except in darkness, below -50 C” or fun things like that.
      His blog is here: http://blogs.sciencemag.org/pipeline/about-derek-lowe (moved there from another address that no longer works)

  6. While not necessarily as explosive, it is my understanding that a lot of the chemicals in the silicon chip industry are just as fun. I remember generalities of the training that someone who worked for Intel as a janitor had described once.

    I don’t remember the chemical name, but one chemical he described, it was explained to him as poisonous to breath. He has no idea how they came to that conclusion, though, because in the training, they also showed a video of a small container of that stuff being opened up to be exposed to oxygen. It left a 10-foot crater.

    I suspect an actual chip chemist might have similar fun stories to tell about his work…

    • Derek Lowe and others mentioned that chlorine trifluoride is used in semiconductor manufacturing as a cleaner. Makes sense; steel can handle it (with care) but it will dissolve almost anything else.
      And yes, there are plenty of other poisonous materials. Consider the dopants; one of those is arsenic. And etching may involve such nasty stuff as hydrogen fluoride, which apparently poisons by messing with the calcium in your blood (which is critical to the functioning of nerves).

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