Nitro Mike, the student who drank liquid nitrogen

In one form or the other, this story has been circling the Internet since 1997. Do a Google search on liquid nitrogen ingestion, and you'll find the many incarnations of this urban legend, including lengthy discussions on its credibility.

Well... said story is not just an Urban Legend, but it's a true story, and I'm not proud to report that it happened at this great engineering school. To my defense, it wasn't me, it didn't happen in my department, and this school has been the inspiration of many brilliant minds with far greater newsworthy achievements**.

Several versions of this story report the most outrageous claims; one version even suggests that the student drank the liquid nitrogen in an attempt to get high. Now that makes a lot of sense. Following is the story distilled from the school's official press release1, and some other semi-official releases2, 3.

The WPI chapter of the Society of Physics Students had its annual ice- cream social at the beginning of the 1997 Academic Year. The unlucky student M. unfolds the details leading to the incident:
"As tradition dictates, we made our own ice cream, using liquid nitrogen as a refrigerant and aerator. We spilled a little of the nitrogen onto a table and watched tiny little drops of it dance around." Someone asked, "Why does it do that?" M. explained that the nitrogen evaporated when it came in contact with the table, which provided a cushion of air for the drop to sit on, and thermally insulated it to minimize further evaporation- enabling it to do its little dance without scarring the table, boiling away or being "smeared" out. "It's this principle," he said, "that makes it possible for someone to dip his wet hand into molten lead or to put liquid nitrogen in his mouth without injury."

M. was a senior with experience working with liquid nitrogen. Demonstrating the principle of the Leidenfrost Effect, M. took a small amount of the cryogenic liquid into his mouth, to impress bystanders by blowing "smoke" rings. M. performed a stunt he and other students have been doing for years.

Only this time, he swallowed the liquid nitrogen...

Within seconds, M. collapsed on the floor, unable to breathe or feel anything other than intense pain. The Emergency response team arrived shortly after. They administered oxygen, and transported him to the hospital. The x-rays indicated a that M. had a perforated stomach, and a risk for perforation of the esophagus. The entire gastrointestinal tract was scarred, burned and perforated, and one of his lungs had collapsed.

The swallow reflex is always followed by closing of the epiglottis. In this unfortunate incident, M. had swallowed a cryogenic liquid that rapidly expanded to a gas volume, many times larger than its initial volume (an expansion from a few cc's to several liters gas). The body simply can't purge or accommodate such large quantities of gas, and as a result M. ended up with severe intestinal damage. M. burned his gastrointestinal tract, because of the prolonged contact with the liquid nitrogen. Eventually, the gas film surrounding the liquid nitrogen diminished, and the tract came into contact with a liquid at -196 C (-321 F).