Wednesday, July 30, 2008


So I’m upstairs in the bathroom trying to unblock a waste-pipe. I’ve cleaned out the S-Bend Trap (Yuk!), and I’ve poked the long metal snakey thing into the pipe to get as far down the system as I can. I put it back together and, lo and behold, the water now runs away gradually, rather than festering in a pool in the basin, like some primordial soup. Sort of OK, but nothing like it was when we built the house.

What I really want is some stuff I bought, and subsequently got rid of, a few years ago, which you had to pour VERY CAREFULLY into the opened pipe, leave it for half an hour, reconnect it all up, turn the tap on, and Yabbadabba-Doo – just like new again. Except, of course, those that look after my every interest in Government have decreed that I am not now to be trusted with these substances. Mind you, it was 96% Sulphuric Acid, so I can perhaps, on this occasion, understand their stance.

But, I’m not an idiot. I’m not going to drink it, wipe it up with my finger or splash water on it to clean up the mess. I have a degree in some sort of Scientific Cleverness, and would take appropriate measures to avoid any personal damage – like getting a guy in to do it for me.

All of which instantly brought me back to my schooldays, and the Chemistry lessons which I so enjoyed. This was in the early 60s when Man, or at least, American Man, was starting the fabulous voyage which would lead to Apollo 11. As someone fascinated by these things, these days you simply can’t imagine the toe curling joy you got from watching the goings on at Cape Canaveral. I read, or more accurately devoured everything I could find on the subject, and one day reading “Flight” Magazine, what did I come across but a description of the propellants used in the American’s new and biggest Rocket, the Titan.

To get away from the problems of having to ensure that the ignition systems in the engines needed to work perfectly every time, the wizzos designing the rockets simply did away with them. They used fuels which were “hypergolic”, which I found out meant “Ignites on impact”. You kept them in two separate tanks in the rocket, and poured them down two separate tubes into the rocket motor whereupon you got the Mother and Father of all controlled explosions, and a couple of seconds later you were in space.

At least, that was the theory.

The recipe for all this was disarmingly simple – 1 bottle of Red Fuming Nitric Acid, and 1 bottle of Unsymmetrical DiMethyl Hydrazine, hereinafter referred to as UDMH. We are now in the days when you did real experiments at school in the Chemistry Labs. You poked around with Phosphorous, you made Chlorine, and smelt it, you got the remarkably unstable element Aluminium glowing red by removing the protective oxide on it. You had Bunsen Burners permanently on, resulting in the great side pleasure of unobtrusively singeing the trousers of classmates you disliked. It was a real joy of discovery.

Then started the Organic Chemistry course. We began with Methane, and Ethane, Alkynes and the like. Incidentally, do you know that making Acetylene is the result of combining Calcium Carbide and Water. So if you feed Calcium Carbide to a pigeon, I have it on goodish authority that the resultant avian explosion is deemed quite impressive (as avian explosions go), if you are a questioning 16 year old with a practical Scientific bent.

Anyway, the course developed. Benzenes came and went, we made soap (Sodium Oleate, Sodium Palmitate and something else I can’t remember anymore) until one day the magic word Hydrazine appeared in the lesson.

Your mind’s probably ahead of me, but we did go through due scientific process here. We started with Bog Standard Vanilla Hydrazine, and thanks to a little prompting and leading from the class (there was a grand total of 6 of us in the form, reducing to 5 if you exclude the form-master) we seemed to get on to Di-Methyl Hydrazine. Well, this was close enough for me. I reckoned, as a rangefinder, I could live without UDMH’s molecular asymmetry to begin with, and the Devil’s Brew to make some was duly set in motion. The lab must have looked a bit like the inside of an Al-Qaeda Bomb cell, but I only made a small quantity (Honestly, Your Honour).

In the meantime, the Red Fuming Nitric Acid had been fuming away, waiting for its moment, in the Fume Cupboard. Except, that is, on one occasion, some other inquisitive bright spark had got it out to play and managed to splash some on his hand, the result of which was an aesthetically rather satisfying, perfectly circular and impressively large crater in his Index Finger.

So later that lesson, when we were being busy little scientists, I decided that I ought to test the substances we had just created. I had literally only a thimbleful of DMH. So a matched quantity of RFNA was poured out, and the two brought near to each other using those quaint twisty things you used in a Fume Cupboard to manipulate the potions from outside the cabinet. They were both in very small glass containers, sitting behind the large glass screens through which we all used to observe the goings on.

I don’t know what would have happened if I had not been standing behind the wooden frame of the Cupboard. I suspect something inside me had done an intuitive and rather rudimentary Risk Assessment on the potential consequences of pouring one of the liquids into the other. From a scientific viewpoint, my immediate conclusion was that it didn’t matter which liquid you poured into which.

Even if I say it myself, the result was really rather impressive. The glass shrapnel reached the other side of the lab, and, as I recall, it was not a particularly small room. Fortunately, no-one was injured, one of the lesser sung educational benefits of small class sizes. The form master, who strangely had been outside the lab when the experiment started (Well, he would be, wouldn’t he?) seemed to reappear with remarkable rapidity.

Oh dear, here we go, I thought. Looking back, the odd thing is it didn’t end up as a major problem. A balanced response from those in charge is the best way of describing it. I got a reasonable and fair bollocking for the explosion, and, as I recall, a grudging but slightly congratulatory pat on the back for the use of a bit of scientific initiative.

As a way of learning, on the job, so to speak, I have to say, it worked brilliantly. I can still remember the details nearly 50 years later, and, in my rather tenuous defence, isn’t that what teaching is all about?


1 comment:

Whitenoise said...

Actually, technically at least, it is rocket science...