Alright kids, here's the dirty truth. I almost burned down zot-fot-piq's house the other day, using a combination of sucrose, polyethylene glycol, a strong oxidizer, aluminum, and sheer stupidity. In this writeup, I'm going to tell you:

  • How I did it
  • What went wrong
  • How I kept it from going more wrong
  • How we cleaned up, and
  • Why you should never do this, or let me do this, near your house.

How I did it

I've been burning stuff since I was old enough to be told "don't play with fire." Since joining the military and learning all about hypergolic reactions, I had been eager to try one myself. Here's the thing about hypergolics: they're high energy reactions, and they almost always outgas something toxic. So, I set about carefully lighting off small-scale reactions in the great outdoors, where presumably a few litres of chlorine gas wouldn't hurt anyone. The reaction vessels were easy to make--typically an aluminum can cut in half--and the materials were readily available household chemicals. Only once did I fail to take adequate safety precautions, and luckily, nobody got hurt. Well, now it's twice, and I got a little hurt.

We went outside with the video camera, the chemicals, and (I must stress again) sheer stupidity. We set up the reactor in a parking lot, added the fuel to the oxidizer, and backed off. The reaction usually takes a minute (almost exactly) to kick off, and we waited... and waited... and nothing happened. We got jittery, I chickened out, and we decided to scrub the "launch." Here is the stupidest thing I could have done: I walked up to it.

Contrary to every natural law of just deserts and coincidence, it did not explode all over me. I did not lose an eye. I doused it with about a gallon of water. I poured the guts out, but there was a small pile of wet, cakey reagent left at the bottom. For those of you who don't know anything about hypergolics, this is a bad thing. Once a hypergolic reaction is set up, you might as well let it go. I carried the (theoretically inert) reactor inside, intending to wash out the rest of the chemicals in the loo.

What went wrong

The loo was occupied. As I stood there trying to figure out where else to douse this aluminum time bomb in my hands, I felt it begin to heat up. Hypergolic reactions are, by definition, exothermic. I also heard a faint hiss, which let me know the water in the mix was happily beginning to boil off. Again: a bad thing. I'm not certain, but I believe my exact words were:
"Oh shit, oh shit fire in the hole!"

The reaction is characterized by an approximately one minute delay, a two or three second hissing accompanied by the release of chlorine gas and thick petroleum-based smoke, and then a sharp increase in the reaction's exothermic character. On some occasions, this reaction has produced a plume easily 3m in height lasting for up to 10 seconds. Fire in the hole, indeed.

This one was smaller, but still quite enough to make me dislike holding on to it.

What I did to keep it from going more wrong

I threw it out the second-story window. The screen did not cooperate, so the bulk of the heat dissipated at the screen and out through it, but the vessel and the remaining burning fuel and oxidizer were in the window sill. I grabbed it, tossed it to the floor, and stepped on it with my combat boots. The smoke detector went off, and then stopped. I was engulfed in a cloud of chlorine gas, thick oily smoke, and (yes) sheer stupidity. The stomping part, though... that was a good idea. Perhaps the only one I had all night.

How we cleaned it up

This bit's pretty simple. Douse it with water, soak it up with something expendable or towels you don't mind bleaching to splotchy white (sorry, Bart). Don't mess with the clumps of crud until after they've cooled down and/or hardened into lumps of Calcium Carbonate or Calcium Chlorate. Wash your hands after handling any of this stuff, because it can't be good for you. Believe me.

Clean scorch marks by sanding and staining hardwoods. Replace bleached carpet or (for the adventurous type, bleach to match]). Shave scorched carpet--bald is better than charred, usually. Unless Bart is more industrious and fastidious than I expect, he has not fixed the scorch marks.

Why you should never do this, or let me do this, near your house

Because in large quantities it's probably against the law. Because in small quantities, it doesn't do anything but outgas chlorine, which is an irritant at best, and toxic at worst. Because renter's insurance probably doesn't cover arson by stupidity. Because neither of the reagents are particularly healthy chemicals to begin with. Because you might burn down a friend's apartment. Because you enjoy having ten fingers and being able to breathe without a machine. Because it is, essentially, an unregulated hypergolic chemical reaction, and

playing with fire is unbelievably stupid.

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