I should say that it’s pretty impressive that I, a legendarily klutzy individual, made it through nearly two-thirds of the academic year without a significant accident in a chemistry lab. Alas, my streak ended yesterday after a disastrous experiment.

Friday’s lab was a demonstration of a particular reaction using a chemical powder called ferrocene. It looks like this: 

I won’t bore you with the details of the experiment, but it involved creating a new compound from ferrocene, then isolating that new compound. Which also happens to be bright orange.

PS: In the process of collecting materials, I broke a beaker. No big deal, but a harbinger of things to come.

Anyway, in organic lab – those of you who aren’t cursed with being science nerds don’t know this – accuracy and success are not necessarily important. My last three lab reports contained the phrase, “zero percent yield,” which is a euphemism for “total failure.”

So imagine our surprise when myself and my lab partner found ourselves on the last step of the experiment, boiling off some juice to get at the solid we wanted to isolate, with a LOT of juice! This was very good news – it meant our yield would be high and the product would be pure. Everything, besides the minor beaker mishap, was going according to plan. All we had to do was slowly evaporate the solvent, methylene chloride, and then we were done.

A quick technical sidebar: methylene chloride boils at a pretty low temperature, around 130 degrees Fahrenheit. It also happens to be a carcinogen. Just FYI.

So I was holding the test tube with the stuff in it over boiling water, just warming it in the steam. No big deal. It was boiling off nice and smoothly. I was getting excited.

The next two seconds happened in slow motion. I saw a giant air bubble form at the bottom of the test tube. In a crazy fast explosion, the air bubble shot up to the top of the test tube, taking with it ALL OF MY PRECIOUS SOLUTION containing my bright orange dust. The juice went skyrocketing into the air, hitting my face, the lab bench, and even the ceiling. It had the equivalent force of one of those confetti party poppers, except without the resultant “bang.”

Because the stuff was already hot, shooting it up into the air had the unintended consequence of vaporizing ALL of it, so no one besides me even noticed what had happened. By the time my poor lab partner looked over to see that all of our product was airborne and thus not in the test tube, it was all over.

I looked up and noticed some orange sprinkles floating back down to earth, landing in my hair. Mmm. Ferrocene. Hope that stuff isn’t toxic. Hmm. Maybe I should look up its safety sheet:

Potential Acute Health Effects:
Very hazardous in case of ingestion. Hazardous in case of skin contact (irritant), of eye contact (irritant), of inhalation.

Potential Chronic Health Effects:
Very hazardous in case of ingestion. Hazardous in case of skin contact (irritant), of eye contact (irritant), of inhalation.

The substance is toxic to lungs, mucous membranes. Repeated or prolonged
exposure to the substance can produce target organs damage.


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