Saturday, March 08, 2008

The joys of chlorine trifluoride.

It sets sand on fire. Think about that for a second.

[D]uring World War II, the Germans were very interested in using it in self-igniting flamethrowers, but found it too nasty to work with. It is apparently about the most vigorous fluorinating agent known, and is much more difficult to handle than fluorine gas. That’s one of those statements you don’t get to hear very often, and it should be enough to make any sensible chemist turn around smartly and head down the hall in the other direction.

The compound also a stronger oxidizing agent than oxygen itself, which also puts it into rare territory. That means that it can potentially go on to “burn” things that you would normally consider already burnt to hell and gone, and a practical consequence of that is that it’ll start roaring reactions with things like bricks and asbestos tile. It’s been used in the semiconductor industry to clean oxides off of surfaces, at which activity it no doubt excels.

There’s a report from the early 1950s (in this PDF) of a one-ton spill of the stuff. It burned its way through a foot of concrete floor and chewed up another meter of sand and gravel beneath (emphasis mine), completing a day that I'm sure no one involved ever forgot. That process, I should add, would necessarily have been accompanied by copious amounts of horribly toxic and corrosive by-products: it’s bad enough when your reagent ignites wet sand, but the clouds of hot hydrofluoric acid are your special door prize if you’re foolhardy enough to hang around and watch the fireworks.

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