Mar. 19th, 2012

katsmeat: (Default)
In 1973, the rocket–scientist John D. Clark,Note 1 actually a propulsion chemist, published a book called Ignition! An Informal History of Liquid Rocket Propellants. I've seen it on spaceflight and rocketry bibliographies, but never held an actual copy as the few out there in the wild change hand on ABEBooks for US$400 or more. This is why I was quite happy to find a pdf (just Google the title).

It's a remarkable combination of snarky commentary, and deadpan anecdotes of breathtakingly dangerous chemistry. It's in the vein of Things I Won't Work With. Except Dr Clark actually was working with them.

Below is his Description of Chlorine Triflouride. I'm light on chemistry but, in essence, it's a much better oxidiser than oxygen, therefore it'll happily burn materials that are already oxidised and you've been brought up to think can't actually burn. You know... sand, glass, asbestos. If some spilled on you, it wouldn't burn your skin in the normal sense of a chemical–burn, it'd burn you in the sense of actually combusting you. Naturally, there'd be the bonus of clouds of toxic, Fluorine nasties while it did this.

”It is, of course, extremely toxic, but that's the least of the problem. It is hypergolicNote 2 with every known fuel, and so rapidly hypergolic that no ignition delay has ever been measured. It is also hypergolic with such things as cloth, wood, and test engineers, not to mention asbestos, sand, and water-with which it reacts explosively. It can be kept in some of the ordinary structural metals-steel, copper, aluminium, etc.-because of the formation of a thin film of insoluble metal fluoride which protects the bulk of the metal, just as the invisible coat of oxide on aluminium keeps it from burning up in the atmosphere. If, however, this coat is melted or scrubbed off, and has no chance to reform, the operator is confronted with the problem of coping with a metal-fluorine fire. For dealing with this situation, I have always recommended a good pair of running shoes.”

He then goes on to describe the time a stainless-steel tank fractured, 900kg of ClF3 got dumped onto the floor in one big splash and the concrete floor, followed by the gravel under the building, caught fire. It is the only time I've ever cringed while reading a scientific work.


Note 1: And Science-fiction author. Though I can't help thinking his job had to be more exciting than his fiction.

Note 2: Self-igniting


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