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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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October 9, 2012

Way Too Much Hydrofluoric Acid

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Posted by Derek

Eight tons of hydrofluoric acid released? This industrial accident in South Korea sounds horrific. I'm surprised that only 3,000 people were injured, given the population density there. And declaring it a "special disaster zone" seems appropriate, because believe me, that's a special disaster.

Comments (32) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Current Events


1. processchemist on October 9, 2012 6:55 AM writes...

Awful. The worst disaster I heard about after Bhopal. I can'think about the consequences suffered by the injured people (in the only accident I heard with an HF cylinder, the operator lost the exposed leg). And quite unbelievable the damage extimate... only 15.9 millions USD???

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2. Hap on October 9, 2012 7:48 AM writes...

Is the chemical company responsible for preparing reagents to contain hazardous material spills, are they supposed to notify the local authorities beforehand so that they have the appropriate material on hand, or do they close their eyes and pray/hope/etc. real hard that nothing bad happens?

Someone dropped the (very corrosive and bone-eating) ball with the cleanup issues, not even accounting for how 8 mt of HF got to wandering sans sufficient containment (although I'm not sure what sufficient containment would be - enclosing the HF work area in the largest plastic milk jug in Asia?)

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3. processchemist on October 9, 2012 8:04 AM writes...

They're gonna use an HUGE amount of calcium oxalate to treat the injured people but about the contaminated area what kind of action must be taken? They're supposed to spray sodium bicarbonate solution with fire planes?

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4. Hap on October 9, 2012 8:11 AM writes...

The article said that they were supposed to use calcium hydroxide but that they didn't have any on hand. Fire engines?

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5. Eric on October 9, 2012 8:28 AM writes...

Watch out, Uruguay!

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6. Petros on October 9, 2012 8:39 AM writes...

Scary for the residents

a different sort of chemical accident- liquid nitrogen cocktails!

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7. Yazeran on October 9, 2012 11:59 AM writes...


Yes way too much HF!

As a safety officer I get nervous by just hearing about anyone of my colleagues thinking about using HF (I work at a university) and I usually forward them some chosen incident reports about the dangers (including the occasional need for amputation). They usually rethink their experiment/procedure after that though....


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8. pat pending on October 9, 2012 2:10 PM writes...

Oil refineries use gaseous HF in alkylation reactors on a ton scale as well. However, US refineries have an aqueous quench / misting system on a thick concrete pad in case of rupture/ escape of HF

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9. dave w on October 9, 2012 2:11 PM writes...

I don't know what their process was; my initial reaction was: 8 tons? That's "way too much" HF even if you don't spill it!

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10. Puff the Mutant Dragon on October 9, 2012 2:44 PM writes...

I second @9. That sounds like waaaaay too much HF in one place to me...

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11. Captain Ned on October 9, 2012 5:10 PM writes...

Not to be all conspiracy-minded, but HF is used in the conversion of yellowcake uranium (U3O8) into uranium hexafluoride (UF6), a/k/a the key feedstock for uranium enrichment by either gas centrifuge or gaseous diffusion.

Oh, and to make things even crazier, reprocessing uranium out of spent reactor fuel uses ClF3.

Just sayin'

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12. metaphysician on October 9, 2012 7:47 PM writes...

#11- If that were true, it would mean that the South Korean government was both convinced that hostilities with the North were inevitable, *and* had lost faith in the US to provide nuclear cover. Which is to say, very bad things.

I think its more likely just an industrial accident, however.

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13. Hibob on October 9, 2012 8:01 PM writes...

#7 Yazeran: Send the people who want to use HF a peptide lab. Anyone who does Boc chemistry has the equipment to do small reactions in neat HF safely. I always thought it was a bit odd how all of the total synthesis jocks were scared of using HF while theirs were the labs where people were actually getting hurt (explosions, fires, etc.). People get lax about safety after they do something a few times and nothing goes wrong ... that doesn't happen when people work with HF regularly.

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14. Anonymous on October 9, 2012 8:55 PM writes...

Anyone watch breaking bad? It's about a high school chemistry teacher dying of cancer who decides to start a method lab with one of his Students in order tO make a ton of money to secure his family's future. in one episode, they dissolve a drug dealer's body in HF!!

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15. Anonymous on October 9, 2012 9:01 PM writes...

Sorry...a meth lab!!

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16. Dan on October 9, 2012 9:46 PM writes...

Eight TONS? Ye gods. I thought working with ~1 L of the stuff (not even pure, that was about 15% HF and 85% NH4F) in the integrated circuit fabrication lab in grad school was bad enough.

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17. Jerry on October 9, 2012 10:35 PM writes...

Isn't Calcium Gluconate used to treat HF exposure?

Calcium Oxalate is a solid - and the composition of my kidney stones :(

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18. Jerry on October 9, 2012 10:36 PM writes...

Isn't Calcium Gluconate used to treat HF exposure?

Calcium Oxalate is a solid - and the composition of my kidney stones :(

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19. JH on October 10, 2012 1:59 AM writes...

Here's the web site of Hube Global, also in english:

They indicate that the Gumi plant is actually a producer of LCD-grade HF which makes the accident seem even more irresponsible. They should be prepared for the worst if they constantly produce and ship a product like this.

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20. processchemist on October 10, 2012 3:05 AM writes...


Yes, but I heard about it when I was graduating (in a chemical engeneering department) and they were talking about oxalate... anyway, glad to have no direct experience about it....

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21. Captain Ned on October 10, 2012 5:23 AM writes...

@ #14

Yeah, and as usual Jesse doesn't listen to Walter and dumps the HF and the body in a standard enameled-iron bathtub, which quickly falls through the floor.

Walter, being a chemist, told Jesse to put the whole mess in a plastic tub.

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22. Yazeran on October 10, 2012 8:03 AM writes...

#13 Hibob

Yep sure, We do already have a lab where there are lab techs trained in handling HF safely with no problems.

The issue arises when some postdoc/researcher just want his metal sample cleaned before analysis/whatever and has read that HF is such a good tool for that and it would be so much simpler to just do it just before putting the sample in the test setup instead of having to go to the other building with the proper systems and trained people....

Oh and by the way, we are an mostly inorganic lab (fuel cells)


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23. engineer on October 10, 2012 9:42 AM writes...

See the attached link more detail on the release

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24. Yazeran on October 10, 2012 12:42 PM writes...


Persons working a dammed tanker truck with pressurized HF with no personal protection, not even helmets (not that a helmet would have made any difference in this case, nothing short of a spacesuit or similar can protect you in case of that amount of high pressure HF being released as it can be absorbed through the skin).

Disclaimer: Assuming the information on #23's link is correct of cause.

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25. Yazeran on October 10, 2012 12:45 PM writes...

Ok, slight error, it was not pressurized, just concentrated HF (only slightly less bad than pressurized HF)

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26. newsouthzach on October 10, 2012 9:54 PM writes...


I have to routinely etch niobium films as part of my work. To do that, you start with concentrated HF, and cut it 50/50 with concentrated HNO3. My safety officer about lost his shit, but the fact is, sometimes these nasty processes are necessary.

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27. Yazeran on October 11, 2012 3:18 AM writes...

#26 Yes, sometimes HF is necessary and you have to use it, and it can surely be handled safely by trained personnel using the correct precautions etc, but not by some random researcher/postdoc who just happens to have read in a journal that HF is the quickest way to do the job....

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28. Nile on October 13, 2012 11:19 AM writes...

The nastiest HF incident I've encountered was a suicide: the individual involved removed the covers from a vat of HF used for decladding spent fuel rods, and immersed himself in it.

Gruesome stories - some of them apocryphal - surround this incident: his symbolic 'burial' using calcium carbonate and calcium fluoride from the cleanup (nb: foundrymen who die by falling into molten metal are buried, ingot, kettle and all, by means of a construction crane at the graveside); the health & safety manager of the contractor was detained by the police for wasting their time (no body means no crime or suicide to report); and all they found were trouser buttons (and we'd love to know what they were made of).

Ask me, sometime, how I know about that one: and how I know that one of those apocrypha is true (or at least, well-founded in the facts).

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29. Kaleberg on October 15, 2012 11:55 PM writes...

I've been reading "What Went Wrong?", a classic on industrial plant accidents. The whole industry has a mindset that seems insane to us mortals. If they've only spilled a lake full of gasoline, they'll sigh in relief. It could have been something dangerous like a lake full of hot vinyl chloride. If this were a chemical process blog, all the comments would be of the form, "Thank god it was only eight tons. The containment system handled most of it."

Judging from the book, and this accident, it's just as well that most of these guys are totally paranoid.

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30. J on October 18, 2012 3:37 PM writes...

Just a perspective of someone who has worked in a UF6 plant.... We always had 6 or so rail cars on or near site. We worked with AHF and alot of what is said above is true. We used calcium gluconate gel to treat possible exposure and our mitigation system was deluge towers for the railcars and deluge scrubbers for storage tanks. PPE was required any time you were working near an HF system.

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31. Not Important on October 19, 2012 11:26 AM writes...

Massive ignorance, criminal lack of due diligence. Zero effort in process safety from codes to PPE, procedures to actual physical install. Watch the video of the release....Except for Japan, Asia is way behind the US in Process safety....but the products are cheap!
You have two, obviously untrained, operators, without the proper PPE, should have been in full acid suit with breathing air. The HF ISO should have been in a ventilated and scrubbed building. The HF ISO valve should have been air actuated. The first connection should have been another air actuated valve, and that connection pressure tested prior to opening the HF ISO valve....I could go on, but as you can see it cost $$ to do it safely, now it is going to cost them and the unsuspecting public ( and the area was not classified for HF) their lives....

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32. Kevin on October 23, 2012 3:15 PM writes...

#14/15....(I'm just getting to this posting....sorry for my lateness). There was also an ER episode back in the '90s (1998?) when a worker was accidently doused with HF. The premise was that none of the ER docs could do anything for him. The HF had already seeped past his skin and was complexing out all the calcium in his bones (or something to that effect)....not very nice.

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