An early favorite has appeared in my “most alarming chemical papers” file for this year. Thomas Klapoetke and Joerg Stierstorfer from Munich have published one with a simple title that might not sound unusual to people outside the field, but has made every chemist I’ve shown it to point like a bird dog: “The CN7 Anion”. The reason that one gets our attention is that compounds with lots of nitrogens in them – more specifically, compounds with a high percentage of nitrogen by weight – are a spirited bunch. They hear the distant call of the wild, and they know that with just one leap of the fence they can fly free as molecules of nitrogen gas. And that’s never an orderly process. If my presumably distant cousin Nick Lowe does indeed love the sound of breaking glass, then these are his kinds of compounds. A more accurate song title for these latest creations would be “I Love the Sound Of Shrapnel Bouncing Off My Welder’s Mask”, but that sort of breaks up the rhythm.
These Bavarian rowdies have prepared a series of salts of the unnerving azidotetrazolate anion. As they point out, the anion was described back in 1939 (in what I hope was a coincidental association with the outbreak of the Second World War), but its salts are “rarely described in the literature”. Yes indeed! People rarely spray hungry mountain lions with Worcestershire sauce, either, come to think of it.
After reading this paper, I’m considering taking my chances with the mountain lions. The authors report a whole series of salts, X-ray structures and all, which range from the “relatively stable” lithium and sodium derivatives all the way to things that couldn’t even be isolated. In the latter category is the rubidium salt, which they tried to prepare several times. In every case, the solution detonated spontaneously on standing. And by “spontaneously”, they mean “while standing undisturbed in the dark”, so there’s really just no way to deal with this stuff. It’s probably a good thing they didn’t get crystals, because someone would have tried to isolate the hideous things. The cesium salt actually did give a few crystals, which they managed to pluck from the top of the solution and get X-ray data on. A few hours later the remaining batch suddenly exploded, though, which certainly must have been food for thought.
The authors went on to investigate the thermal behavior of these wonderful compounds, another risky move. As it turns out, they have calorimetry data on only five of the salts, because when they got to the sodium derivative, “a violent explosion destroyed the setup”. They also did sensitivity tests, using a standard drophammer rig from the Bundesanstalt fuer Materialforschung, evocatively abbreviated as BAM. These, along with the friction and spark tests, put these compounds well into the “primary explosive” category. Well, the ones that they could get data on, that is: the potassium and cesium compounds blew up as they tried to get them into the testing apparatus. So it’s safe to assume that they’re a bit touchy, too.
One of my favorite parts of the paper is the mention (found in much of the recent high-energy materials literature) that high-nitrogen compounds are worth investigated as “green” explosives, which makes me think that the whole environmental-rationale business must be reaching its end points. The notion of a more environmentally friendly way to blow things up aside, I have to salute the paper’s authors. They’ve made compounds that no one will have to make again, and survived the experience. Read the paper and be glad that this wasn’t your PhD project. . .