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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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April 5, 2013

Chlorine Trifluoride: Some Empirical Findings

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Posted by Derek

Over the years, I've probably had more hits on my "Sand Won't Save You This Time" post than on any other single one on the site. That details the fun you can have with chloride trifluoride, and believe me, it continues (along with its neighbor, bromine trifluoride) to be on the "Things I Won't Work With" list. The only time I see either of them in the synthetic chemistry literature is when a paper by Shlomo Rozen pops up (for example), but despite his efforts on its behalf, I still won't touch the stuff.

And if anyone needs any more proof as to why, I present this video, made at some point by some French lunatics. You may observe the mild reactivity of this gentle substance as it encounters various common laboratory materials, and draw your own conclusions. We have Plexiglas, a rubber glove, clean leather, not-so-clean leather, a gas mask, a piece of wood, and a wet glove. Some of this, under ordinary circumstances, might be considered protective equipment. But not here.

Comments (43) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Chemical News | Things I Won't Work With


1. WhatFun on April 5, 2013 12:31 PM writes...

The book "Ignition!" by John D. Clark is available online as a .pdf here:

It has a wonderful discussion of ClF3 and its energetic cousins.
The rest of the website is also interesting, as one might surmise from its name.

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2. Matthew on April 5, 2013 12:36 PM writes...

I can just see some Texan watching this and thinking "BBQ!"

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3. Texan Chemist on April 5, 2013 1:11 PM writes...

We here in Texas have the know-how to make anything work for our benefit. ClF3? Psshhhhh. Bring it to Texas and we'll be taking shots of the stuff.

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4. David Formerly Known as a Chemist on April 5, 2013 1:35 PM writes...

This looks like an Al Qaeda training video, both in content and quality.

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5. D.J. on April 5, 2013 2:08 PM writes...

Well, for one thing that post got you an Instalanche (of which I was a part), and your Things I Won't Work With and How Not To Do It categories are the most accessible to the non-chemists. I know that when I generally send links to your blog, it's either to ClF3 or Hexanitrohexaazaisowurtzitane to get people hooked.

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6. Nekekami on April 5, 2013 2:27 PM writes...

I usually link to ClF3 first and, while they are still incredulous about that, then go on to tell them that there's worse and link them to FOOF

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7. Hap on April 5, 2013 3:10 PM writes...

4: Well, then, that's one problem solved. If they can handle ClF3 well, then I guess we're screwed. More likely, though, they can't, in which case Darwinian evolution will quickly rear its ugly head.

"Be kind to dragons, for you are crunchy and taste good with ketchup."

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8. Anonymous on April 5, 2013 3:19 PM writes...

Who else is going to handle the dangerous stuff if not proper chemists? Safe handling is the key to reliable safety, not avoidance...

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9. Hap on April 5, 2013 3:32 PM writes...

Even if you have the confidence and ability to handle ClF3 safely, ClF3 is bad enough that if you make a mistake (and everyone does, eventually), then very bad things are going to happen. You avoid risks when they are unnecessary - when you can't do something another way, when the other ways have more significant safety risks, or when the other ways are unreliable or otherwise unuseful (and the last point has a rather high bar attached). Just because an animal trainer can coat himself in barbeque sauce and tame a lion doesn't mean he should.

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10. D-Not on April 5, 2013 3:53 PM writes...

Generic januvia is now approved by the Indian Government for sale in India.

here comes Cheap Januvia !!! Onglyza to follow.

other medicines will likewise will hopefully be available cheaply.

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11. D-Not on April 5, 2013 3:55 PM writes...

Merck sues India's Glenmark for stomping on Januvia patent - FiercePharma

Good Luck Merck !!

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12. dave w on April 5, 2013 4:57 PM writes...

From the item at the Google Books link: "BrF3 is a commercial reagent, but it could also be readily prepared by anybody having a fluorine line."

"Anybody" seems a little disingenuous: it seems like a "fluorine line" may not be that common a piece of lab infrastructure!

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13. followerchemist on April 5, 2013 5:14 PM writes...

insert substance = boom. IMMENSE.will show this to some of the students in the lab who think there project is going wrong, I mean it could be worse you could be on this one when it's going right!

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14. Anonymous BMS Researcher on April 5, 2013 10:22 PM writes...

My wife's comment: if it's late on a Friday and the chemists start acting manic, LEAVE THE BUILDING!

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15. matt on April 6, 2013 2:00 AM writes...

@DFKaaC #4 Re: image quality. Cut 'em some slack, blast proof glass which has apparently seen quite a few blasts tends to be crazed.

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16. metaphysician on April 6, 2013 9:09 AM writes...


I'm not sure I want to know what kind of work would require a fluorine line in your lab. . .

For that matter, how would you even run a fluorine line? Wouldn't the much greater length of piping involved greatly ( unacceptably ) increase the risk of a fluorine leak?

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17. Notta Dr. Dot on April 6, 2013 11:41 AM writes...

I'm with DJ up yonder. I stumbled upon this via a search for ClF3 (I think it was from Wikipedia). I'd wondered if people weren't being a tad overcautious with some of this. I wonder no more. I can't recall a time when my eyebrows stayed buried up in my hairline for such an extended period of time than when reading some of these stories, and this video takes the prize.

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18. Notta Dr. Dot on April 6, 2013 12:07 PM writes...

I'm with DJ up yonder. I stumbled upon this via a search for ClF3 (I think it was from Wikipedia). I'd wondered if people weren't being a tad overcautious with some of this. I wonder no more. I can't recall a time when my eyebrows stayed buried up in my hairline for such an extended period of time than when reading some of these stories, and this video takes the prize.

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19. Jon B. on April 6, 2013 4:09 PM writes...

It was someone linking your "Sand Won't Save You This Time" that lead me to your blog and other posts. It got me several good reads like Max Gergel's books and Ignition. The book I've wanted to but haven't found anywhere is The Green Flame. It's totally out of print, no longer available on Amazon etc. and the author for whatever reason hasn't posted an online version of it. I may try an interlibrary loan at my alma mater but this would probably turn complicated. Any better ideas? I just want to read it. I don't need to own it.

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20. Randy Owens on April 6, 2013 5:37 PM writes...

What a happy coincidence. I was just re-reading the old "sand won't save you" post, and thought I might check the "things I won't work with" category again, even though it doesn't seem to get added to very often these days. Now, time to watch the video . . . .

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21. Bruce Hamilton on April 6, 2013 6:34 PM writes...


The author of "The Green Flame" ( about classified boron-based jet and rocket fuel research ) appears to have sold publication rights to the ACS, who no longer publish it, but may still constrain him from putting the book online.

He has a web site that offers a brief synopsis and a short later update. The Wayback Machine might find full chapters that he apparently posted earlier.

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22. Dr. Mel on April 7, 2013 2:59 PM writes...

I think as physical sciences we all understand that explosions are the result of confined space (flask, cylinder or room) and expanding contents. The contents do not have to be toxic or corrosive. I *was* a fluorine chemist. My first vacuum line was in a fumehood with the group fluorine cylinder. I can remember my "Notta Dr. Dot Eyebrow Response" at the time to a JACS paper about the NMR of supercritical solutions in sealed NMR tubes that had the coolest danger footnotes about exploding NMR tubes at inconvenient times.

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23. Chris on April 7, 2013 6:14 PM writes...

Another ex-fluorine chemist here... Look up Air Products Safetygram 39, it's a datasheet for handling ClF3. There appears to be a new sanitised version on their site. If you dig around you can also find the older one which has pictures of ClF3 + raw chicken. There is supposed to be a video of the trials reported in the Safetygram but sadly I don't think it's been posted online.

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24. dave w on April 8, 2013 12:42 PM writes...

ISTR hearing somewhere that the process for extracting the plutonium from 'spent' uranium fuel at Hanford started out with dissolving the whole mess in ClF3...!

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25. Chris Buckey on April 8, 2013 6:44 PM writes...

It's the light elevator jazz music that really makes that video something special.

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26. Dan on April 9, 2013 11:17 AM writes...

Safetygram 39 (including raw chicken) is available here:

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27. Wave on April 10, 2013 1:15 AM writes...

I just read your post on hydrogen fluoride and it brought back some memories. HF used to be used in absorption cells for high-precision velocity measurements of stars. The light from the telescope was passed through a cell filled with liquid hydrogen fluoride, which would imprint its set of nicely-spaced absorption lines onto the spectrum of the object being observed. The grid of HF lines would then serve as a high-precision reference for calculating the exact wavelength of the observed lines.

Unfortunately, to a grad student, the cell itself mostly served as a terrifying reminder of your own mortality. Drop it and your adviser would suddenly have some free grant money...

These days the HF cells have largely been replaced with iodine gas, and a generation of sleep-deprived, clumsy astronomers breathes easier.

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28. Keith S. on April 11, 2013 1:48 PM writes...

By the way, since you mentioned ClF3's bromine cousin, there's a YouTube of that as well, where they're apparently using it to test a candidate material for lab aprons or similar protective gear:

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29. Mr. Cat on April 16, 2013 6:05 PM writes...

I love that it is of note to one of the observers in the video that the clean leather glove did not explode. (And then the dirty one did!)

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30. Peter Stanley on April 18, 2013 2:17 AM writes...

Thanks for this wonderful post.

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31. Peter Stanley on April 18, 2013 2:18 AM writes...

Thanks for this wonderful post. :)

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32. Colin on May 8, 2013 10:31 AM writes...

It wasn't until I saw the damn housebrick go up like a block of magnesium that I truly began to respect this compound.

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33. Matt on September 18, 2013 12:33 PM writes...

Colin, that wasn't a brick, unfortunately. Just wood. But as far as I can tell this is just pouring the ClF3 onto various combustibles.

We need a part two with asbestoss and cinderblocks.

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34. andrew on September 27, 2013 1:37 AM writes...

Matt, I agree considering that it would light concrete on fire, and with enough of it, burn through about a meter of it.

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35. Baylink on October 30, 2013 8:24 PM writes...

I cannot help thinking, everytime I visit your page, that this is the material for a book:

Sand Won't Save You This Time:
Chlorine trifluoride, and other delightful chemical compounds I want no part of

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36. Dizzy Bint on November 11, 2013 9:54 AM writes...

Matt - "We need a part two with asbestoss and cinderblocks."

Good lord Matt, don't go giving them ideas...

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37. Getheren on February 23, 2014 6:38 PM writes...

According to this "Safetygram", an industrial spill of 907 kg of ClF3 burned through 30 cm of concrete and 90 cm of gravel underneath. (One hopes that nobody around was stupid enough to spray water on this fire.)

Definitely stuff that merits a healthy respect.

John D. Clark wrote of the incident in *Ignition!*, saying of the only fatality, "He was a hundred yards away, at Mach 2 and still accelerating, when his heart stopped."

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38. Getheren on February 23, 2014 6:43 PM writes...

While we're at it, here is an MSDS for this delightful stuff. I particularly like the phrase "Swallowing. An unlikely route of exposure."

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39. Alex on February 28, 2014 7:08 PM writes...

I rather liked 'Effects of Repeated (Chronic) Overexposure: No information available.'

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40. Peter on March 26, 2014 9:38 PM writes...

You are a great man! A little Vietnamese girl used to come over to our house and say, "Mr. Peter, I want you to do science experiments with me!" We did many experiments. But I was not nearly so imaginative as you! God will bless you for posting your films, friend!

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41. hackbarth on April 7, 2014 9:47 AM writes...

Here's an study to use Lithium-Fluorine-Hydrogen as a propelant for spacecraft. Something that make Nuclear Orion Drives seem safe:

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42. John Savard on July 30, 2014 7:43 PM writes...

I noticed one minor amusing thing about that study. It noted that one change reduced combustion chamber temperatures from "9800 R (5440 K)" to a lower value.

The R stands for Rankine, which is to Fahrenheit as Kelvin is to Celsius. But it's not that surprising that this appears in a NASA report, as the first time I heard of the Rankine temperature scale was in a book on the theory of aviation.

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43. Mike Andrews on June 24, 2015 12:01 PM writes...

Charles Stross has written a story

in which FOOF is a prominent player, along with a number of other Things I Won't Work With. The tome of the story is pretty much defined by this sentence: “Even though the oxidizer explodes if you look at it funny and the fuel is a corrosive radioactive neurotoxin with a half-life of an hour?”

Enjoy. Charlie's a friend, but I still have to sit down -- or, preferably, *LIE* down -- before I read it, so that I don't fall over.

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