Post 150: Choice Chronicles of the Chronicle Flask

From citric to hydrofluoric, acids are an ever-popular topic

I began this blog in 2013, and since then I’ve written at least one post a month. This will be the 150th.

I put love and care into all my posts and, in turn, this blog has been good to me. Although no one’s ever paid me to write it, it has brought me work over the years – many people have asked me to write for them having read things here. But life is busier now than it’s ever been, and it’s time to wind things down. You’ll continue to find my non-fiction here and there, I’ll still be regularly updating my fiction blog, and if you want the latest info, look me up on Twitter. In particular, check out the #272sci hashtag for tiny bits of bite-sized science.

In the meantime, how about a little reminder of some of this blog’s most popular, most important, or just my favourite, posts? Let’s go!

The acid that really does eat through everything (2013)
Turns out, everyone loves acid – this post is one of my all-time most viewed. I guess there’s just something compelling about substances that can dissolve metal, and this one is particular special (and terrifying) for its ability to also dissolve glass and ceramic. (Oh, and sorry about the double spaces after the full stops. It was a long time ago. I know better now.)

Butyric acid, a very smelly molecule (2014)
On the subject of acids, this has been another popular post. I suppose if there’s anything more fun than an acid that eats through the bottle you’re trying to store it in, it’s an acid that smells of Parmesan and vomit. Seriously, it is an interesting one: we’re all familiar with the smell of ethanoic acid (aka acetic acid, found in vinegar), and propanoic acid (propionic acid) merely smells a bit sweaty, but add one more carbon and, hoo boy, you have an utterly revolting stench that some people are so sensitive to they can still detect it weeks, even months, after cleaning.

It’s important to understand what sugar actually is if you want to reduce your intake

Sugar that’s not sugar? (2015)
People talk a lot of nonsense about sugar. A particular pet hate of mine is people calling products sugar-free when they’re nothing of the sort, or implying that the type of sugary ingredient they’ve put in the thing they’re trying to sell you is somehow extra-healthy. If actually reducing your sugar intake is your goal (and it’s not a terrible one), this piece might help.

MMS and CD chemistry – the facts (2016)
This is my simple explainer about MMS (‘miracle’ or ‘master’ mineral solution) and CD (chlorine dioxide). This horrible, nasty fad seems to have faded away in recent years – partly thanks to the fact that even its founder, Jim Humble, admitted it cures nothing – but then again, I have seen CD-MMS linked to pseudoscientific Covid ‘cures’. Let’s hope this post continues to do its job as a useful reference for anyone that needs it.

Absurd alkaline ideas – history, horror and jail time (2017)
Continuing the theme of health, I’ve written several posts about so-called ‘alkaline’ diets, and this isn’t the most popular (that would be Amazing Alkaline Lemons?) but this is the one I wish more people would read. It explains where the whole silly notion came from in the first place. (As does this Twitter thread, slightly more succinctly.)

There really is no need to panic about slime

No need for slime panic: it’s not going to poison anyone (2018)
I’ve yet to meet a child who doesn’t love slime, and every now and then the gooey stuff becomes so popular that we start to see scare stories. So it was in 2018. However, with a few sensible precautions, slime really isn’t dangerous. It’s all explained here.

Let’s speed up the rate at which we recognise our female chemists (2019)
This one was all about the little-known Elizabeth Fulhame. She was the first chemist to describe catalytic reactions – in 1794, when the more famous Berzelius was a mere teenager. Let’s remember her name.

Chemical connections: dexamethasone, hydroxychloroquine and rheumatoid arthritis (2020)
Covid hit us in 2020, and it would prompt more than one post – including this one when dexamethasone had its moment in the spotlight. Probably an unfamiliar drug to most people before this point, dexamethasone was one of the first practical treatments for rheumatoid arthritis in the mid-20th century. Unlike some other much-hyped treatments, we have solid evidence for the effectiveness of this medicine – although it is really only useful for people suffering with very severe symptoms. Still, it’s pretty cool that an old drug turned out to be such a useful tool in a modern pandemic.

There’s chemistry in your skin

Sunshine, skin chemistry, and vitamin D (2020)
To make it a nice, round ten, I’ll sneak in another 2020 post. This one is all about vitamin D. A lot of people are very critical of supplements, and while I understand their position, this particular case is slightly different. If you live in certain parts of the world, you really, really should be considering vitamin D supplementation for at least part of the year, and this post will tell you why.

Brilliant Bee Chemistry! (2021)
This one wasn’t so long ago, but I love it. Bees are fascinating creatures, and if you don’t know what the connection between bees and bananas is, you ought to have a read.


So, this is it, folks – thank you, it’s been fun! Happy New Year!

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The acid that really does eat through everything

acid burnThanks to the big screen, many of us think of acids as dangerous, burn-through-anything substances.  Think of those scenes in the Alien movies, where the alien’s blood drips through solid metal, destroying everything in its path.

Of course the vast majority of acids are much more boring.  Vinegar (which contains ethanoic acid) and citric acid (found in, guess what, citrus fruits) are common acids that we eat all the time, and they don’t burn holes in your mouth.  There’s an even stronger acid, hydrocholoric acid (HCl), in your stomach and not only does it not burn you from the inside out (usually), it actually helps you to digest your food and keeps you safe from nasty bacteria.

But there is an acid that’s really, properly scary.  And its name is hydrofluoric acid.

Hydrofluoric acid has the chemical formula HF, but unlike HCl you won’t find this one in a school laboratory, and if it turns up in your stomach you’re in very big trouble.  In true movie-acid style it’s capable of dissolving many materials, and is particularly well-known for its ability to dissolve glass (which is mainly silicon dioxide).  It will also dissolve most ceramics (which contain aluminosilicates: compounds made of chemically-bonded aluminium, silicon and oxygen).  And, like many other acids, it also reacts with metals, so storing it is a bit tricky.  Where do you put something that eats through its container? Well, these days it’s stored in special plastic bottles, but in the 17th century when it was first discovered chemists had to use glass bottles coated inside with wax, and hope the coating was a good one.

HF has been an important industrial chemical for centuries.  It’s used to etch patterns into, and clean, glass and ceramics, and also to dissolve rock samples, for example to extract chemicals or fossils from rocks.  It’s also used to clean stainless steel and, in more recent times, to prepare silicon wafers (used to make silicon chips) in the electronics industries.

The chemist Carl Wilhelm Scheele (him again – he just keeps turning up doesn’t he?) was the first person to produce HF in large quantities in 1771.  Scheele is particularly famous for his bad habit of sniffing and tasting any new substances he discovered.  Cumulative exposure to mercury, arsenic, lead, their compounds, hydrofluoric acid, and other substances took their toll on him and he died on 21 May 1786 at the age of just 43.  And that’s why your science teacher was endlessly telling you not to eat or drink in the laboratory.

So why is hydrogen fluoride so nasty?  For starters the gas is a severe poison that immediately and permanently damages the lungs and the corneas of the eyes – lovely. Hydrofluoric acid solution is a contact-poison that causes deep, initially painless burns which result in permanent tissue death. It also interferes with calcium metabolism, which means that exposure to it can and does cause cardiac arrest (heart attack) and death.  Contact with as little as 160 square centimeters (25 square inches) of skin can kill – that’s about the area of the palm of your hand.

And now for a gruesome and tragic tale: in 1995 a chemist working in Australia was sitting working at a fume cupboard and knocked over a small quantity (100-230 millilitres, about the equivalent of a drinking glass full of water) of hydrofluoric acid onto his lap, splashing both thighs.  He immediately washed his legs with water, jumped into a chlorinated swimming pool at the rear of the workplace, and stayed there for about 40 minutes before an ambulance arrived.  (Should you ever need to know, the proper treatment for HF exposure is calcium gluconate gel: calcium gluconate reacts very quickly with hydrofluoric acid to form non-toxic calcium fluoride, rendering it harmless.)  Sadly, his condition deteriorated in hospital and, despite having his right leg amputated 7 days after the accident, he died from multi-organ failure 15 days after hydrofluoric acid spill.  Remember, that was a spill the size of a glass of water.

Because hydrofluoric acid interferes with nerve function, burns from it often aren’t painful to begin with. Small accidental exposures can go unnoticed, which means that people don’t seek treatment straight away, making the whole thing worse.  Do a Google image search on ‘hydrogen fluoride burns’ and you’ll see some images that will really turn your stomach.

So which would you rather meet?  An alien with acid blood and a habit of laying eggs in your stomach or an invisible gas that destroys your tissues and leaves you, if not dead from multiple organ failure, then suffering with horribly disfiguring burns?  You might stand a better chance against the alien…


Comments have been turned off for this post. If you’re planning a DIY project, hydrofluoric acid is probably not your friend. Try Google and/or YouTube; there are almost certainly umpteen safer ways to do the thing you’re trying to do.


All content is © Kat Day 2017. You may share or link to anything here, but you must reference this site if you do.
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