“No Unplanned Detonations”

Amusements gleaned from the comments, tied to Things I Won’t Work With:

“More Nitrogen” is to inorganic chem as “More Cowbell” is to sketch comedy.

We got to make nitrocellulose, gunpowder and ammoniumtriiodide (the precipitate dried on paper towels and whacked with a yardstick for fun) in my AP Chem class back in the early ’80s. Our instructor was famous for his “Learn or Burn!” methods.

[Follow-up post]

If only I’d gone to college on time, before all those pesky “safety” (read: let’s make chemistry less interesting) regulations were decided upon! Alas! I redeemed myself only by working with a group determined to handle the hottest radioactive environmental samples in a lab that was destined to be decommissioned (before it was decided that we were a new reality show called Lab Wars, in which a bunch of apparently expendable chemists were dropped into a junk yard and told to build a hot lab from the rubble).

That said, I’d still not work with these materials, though I left that job to raise children, and frankly, the radioactive stuff was less frightening. This is the first time I’ve read your column, and I’m in love. I think it might be time to get back in the field and start BSU.

“But how on earth are up supposed to build up Charisma, if your hands are tied up by regs?” — any Vargr chemist worth his salt.

I recall when I was an undergraduate and working in a lab as basically a pair of hands to make intermediates for the grad students I had occasion to do some reactions with Osmium tetroxide as well as 98% Hydrogen peroxide. (NOT AT THE SAME TIME!!!!!!). The grad student insisted I go to the library first and read everything I could find about the safe handling of these things and I did so. Consequently I was scared to death and VERY CAREFUL. After a few iterations, though, I lost my fear of the Hydrogen Peroxide, but, luckily never got sloppy enough to pay for it. I even entertained thoughts of reproducing in a controlled (!!!!???) manner the explosions I had read about. Better sense prevailed and my chemistry career was not cut short.

If you work with dangerous stuff long enough – and don’t fail the initiation process – you can get used to anything.

Which means, Travellers can see some skilled hands do amazing things, from time to time…

No Unplanned Detonations is surely a Culture ship name.


It isn’t the Imperial style, but the Imperial member world that names her warships this way is worth a visit.

> you can tell that Matzger’s group has good technique because everyone made it intact to the writing of the manuscript

That’s a perfect example of survival bias… hmmm, yes indeed.

There must be some absolutely legendary Scout teams out there…

I would like all practical synthetic organic, inorganic and organometallic chemists to have to use or make something explosive, and something very toxic, on the very small scale of course, as part of their education – earning their stripes. That way I know they have what it takes to work in a dangerous place – a chemistry lab. Everyone else is an accident waiting to happen.

Different organizations have different ways of making this happen.

“even by the expansive definition of “practical” that obtains in this field”

I must remember this…

Idle hands and clever minds: a most interesting combinations.

Way, way back in the bad old Cold War days I was assigned to a project that required me to take an in-house course in fuze (detonator) engineering. The instructor began with the following:

“If you tell me the ordinance absolutely positively must detonate when you want it to, I can handle that.

“If you tell me the ordinance absolutely positively must *not* detonate when you *don’t* want it to, I can handle that as well.

If you tell me you want both, we need to talk.”

Fascinating business.

I don’t know how to shoehorn this concept into a game… but it’s worth the effort.

Speaking of another wonderful term Derek’s given us, “Satan’s kimchi,” the wonderful folks at India’s High Energy Materials Research Laboratory (their Pune laboratory) have given us an appreciation of their experience with making dinitrogen pentoxide and how they’ve been using it to make CL-20 and even more interesting things.

Just in case the world needed less stable shit, and more ways to make it.

[Follow-up post]

50 grams/batch. Enough to be interesting, but probably not enough to bring the building down. There are some chemists who have a certain idea of “fun”, and they seem to exist everywhere there are chemists.

Every Traveller squad needs a highly intelligent fearless lunatic with no common sense and lots of curiosity.

Back in school days, I used to try making nitroglycerin in my parents’ garage, but never succeeded. The stuff always used to overheat and “explode” (rapidly break down) during synthesis, filling the garage with brown fumes which I had to waft out before my folks got back from work.

[Follow-up post]

“Back in school days, I used to try making nitroglycerin in my parents’ garage”

Are you me? I tried that once, but only had access to school-lab-grade HNO3 and H2SO4. Pre-internet, research sources were my parents’ copy of the Worldbook Encyclopedia, and another forgotten encyclopedia at the local library. Approximately 50ml of proto-nitroglycerin decomposed rapidly in a volcano-like fashion, leaving a smoking patch on the roof of the garage.

My friend and I washed everything down with the garden hose, and the only evidence we left were a couple of irregular clean patches on the roof and floor, immediately above and below the site of the volcano.

I had better luck with traditional gunpowder. Good times.

[Follow-up post]

Glad I’m not the only nutter. Later on I tried to make VX nerve gas. I didn’t do any analytical chemistry on the product, but guess I failed at making that, too, since I’m still around to talk about it. Perhaps there is some natural selection for crappy chemists? Anyway I ended up doing protein engineering.

[Follow-up post]

Yes, I skipped the “why am I doing this?” step, the “how do I explain why I’m doing this?” step and the “what the hell do I do with the stuff if I do manage to make it?” step before I got on with trying it anyway. Probably not very smart in retrospect, but I had just seen The Rock.

[Follow-up post]

Nitroglycerin is actually easy to do at home. Back when I was kid (communist Poland) the biggest problem was to actually get hold of quality glycerin as it was always mixed with some contaminant. I had no problem finding acids even as a kid as they were used for many puproses by general population.

Amazing what you can get done if you have your wits about you, even in a high-law totalitarian surveillance state..

I had a school friend who blew up his parents garage with Nitro. Took him a year to pay for the new one too. The trick is: Small batch, plenty of cooling, adding the Nitric acid slowly and having some methylated spirit at hand to dissolve the nitro in so it doesn’t blow up in your pocket.

Now, This was back in the days (1980’s)when we had actual, effective, terrorist cells all over the place in Europe which the police were dealing with – none of this overblown “War On X”-bullshit, so of course no one got nicked just for a little fun with explosives.

I actually agree with this comment!
(But not with blowing up the garage…)

Hexanitroisowurtzitane: Already looks rather overoxidized to me. Rather than overoxidize it even more with peroxide, I’d have added some powdered aluminum or maybe fuel oil.

By remote control from a different continent.

Imperial antimatter and black hole labs are probably kept on isolated moons…

OK, if they can stuff hydrogen peroxide into this, why not something like….dioxygen difluoride?

Try this somewhere far from Chicago. Maybe Hangzhou would be far enough.

This reminds me of the Tianjin Port Explosions. The Referee should put that on the PC’s bucket list – without informing them.

This reminds me, there’s an acronym in hobby high power rocketry called a RUD, which stands for Rapid Unscheduled Disassembly. It would happen sometimes when for example an ammonium perchlorate based fuel grain inside a solid fuel motor has a flaw in its casting….. RUD….

There’s another one I like, a kinetic core sample, which is when a rocket fails to deploy its parachute and returns to the ground in ballistic fashion, usually sans nosecone.

“Failure of the parachute to deploy”: now, there’s a phrase I’d rather not hear!


About Alvin Plummer

I'm working to build a better world, a world that blesses Christ and is blessed by Him. I hope that you're doing the same!
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