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DBL%20Hendrix%20small.png College chemistry, 1983

Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

Dbl%20new%20portrait%20B%26W.png After 10 years of blogging. . .

Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: Twitter: Dereklowe

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July 3, 2006

Pyrotechnic Days

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Posted by Derek

Many of my US-based readers in the industry probably aren't even at work today - having July 4th fall on a Tuesday definitely puts a dent in the Monday before it. (I'm not at the Wonder Drug Factory myself). No doubt the grad students and post-docs are cranking away in the lab, though, and I hope that none of them have any fireworks that they didn't plan for.

That's a part of chemistry that gets a lot of attention - the way that our day-to-day work can, once in a while, catch on fire. It's not all that common, compared to the amount of time we spend without flames in our fume hoods, although compared to (say) cost accounting things must still look pretty lively. But I have to admit that we chemists don't do anything to help our reputations. No, not when everyone in the lab has a repetoire of their favorite lab accident tales, we don't. I'm as guilty as anyone else, with my "How Not to Do It" category.

But it should be noted that most of the best stories come from a person's graduate school days, when the teller (and their co-workers) were younger, probably more foolish, and certainly less experienced. The only way to discover just how spirited some reagents are is to use them yourself, but after you've done that, you remember them forever. (No one, for example, who's ever dealt with a pure lower-dialkylzinc reagent ever needs a reminder about treating them with respect). Experience also gives you a better chance of stopping a small accident before it can become something that people still talk about twenty years later. You know, for example, that there's likely going to be a flame burning on the tip of your syringe when you take it out of that bottle of tert-butyllithium, so you don't jerk your arm in surprise and hose the stuff spectacularly across the back of your hood.

Another factor, not to be neglected, is that with time some of the folks who generate the best explosion stories decide that they should probably look into other careers. I can tell you that in industry we don't have some of the more exotic types that you find earlier in academia, leaving trails of Pyrex fragments wherever they may wander. The left-hand side of the distribution tends to drop off, as was ever the case, and a good thing, too.

In almost seventeen years of industrial research, I hardly have a story that can compare with what went on in any single year of my graduate work. And no, that's not a complaint.

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1. anon on July 7, 2006 9:50 AM writes...

Yea, there are much stricter safety standards in industry, which would prevent us from trying anything too dangerous.

In grad school I learned the hard way about checking glassware for defects before pulling a vacuum. I had a small (10 mL?) rbf implode due to a tiny star crack that I hadn't noticed. Fortunately, nobody was hurt and the shrapnel was contained within the hood.

As an aside, have you noticed this Derek?

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2. secret milkshake on July 7, 2006 9:52 AM writes...

I stopped fooling with explosive substances and pyrotechnics in high schood - as soon as I got access to an organic lab. From then on, I had my hands full with preventing explosions - things were just happening to me. One favorite accident involved bleaching my hair, my T-shirt and pants with a fountain of hot KOH + KOBr concentrated solution. (I scaled up a prep for Hoffman degradation by factor of 50 - and the hypobromite mix did not wait for me to heat it gently, it did so by itself). Other scary accidents included ignition of 1L of mixture of acrolein + Mg-perchlorate, a potassium metal spill, some unfortunate Grignards, nitrations, brominations, LAH workups.

People have mishaps because of the excessive enthusiasm, low patience and big scale - combined with strong exotherm.

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3. eugene on July 7, 2006 9:58 AM writes...

Of course, the flip side of the elemental coin is the flood. These get especially bad if some undergrad leaves a condenser overnight with the water almost at full blast on the 3rd of July. Good thing that someone was here today. I think that floods happen with about the same frequency as explosions, you just don't hear about them.

And why do floods always happen directly one floor above expensive laser equipment or an HPLC?

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4. MolecularGeek on July 7, 2006 10:03 AM writes...

This all reminds me of a chemistry demonstration that was done for us at a departmental recuitment day back in the dark ages when I was a senior in high school who wanted to be a chemist (foolish mortal was I).

Imagine a styrofoam cup in a ring stand with a lump of potassium in it, sitting over a bucket of water. Add a beaker of diethyl ether to the mix in the obvious way and stand well away (or risk your eyebrows) and imagine the results.

And they wonder why junior pyromaniacs are drawn to the BS in Chemistry.


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5. Hap on July 7, 2006 10:04 AM writes...

2nd hand: the lab across the hall was making cyclosilanes by reducing dimethylsilyl dichloride with potassium/sodium alloy. Scaling up, the alloy found a flaw in the flask and went to town - the hood apparently glowed. There wasn't anything flammable close enough to burn, and the chemist had the (only) alkali metal extinguisher in the department at hand, but I still couldn't go back to lab.

There is also adding 10% Pd/C to a hydrogenation mixture - on small scale, it still makes a nice poof and sparks.

I don't really miss it enough to go back, though.

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