Field of Science

Chemistry by accident

I just finished another Thesis column for Nature Chemistry, this one on the notion that chemistry sets are an essential part of turning kids into chemists — more particularly, what I called the Uncle Tungsten trope: risky chemistry is more fun and makes better chemists. As part of the article, I wondered how many accidents there are in home labs (not counting home meth labs). It turns out that in the US, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) keeps track of hazardous substance events. The data suggests there are around 1000 chemical incidents in private homes each year, and the vast majority involve carbon monoxide (nearly all the fatalities are caused by CO) or inappropriate mixing of common household chemicals (usually of bleach and something else: ammonia, pool acid, pesticides). As far as I can tell, none of the accidents were part of amateur chemistry gone awry.

There are no narratives linked to the data, but a chemist can read between the lines. When the primary chemical listed in a chemical accident is sucrose — table sugar — (a) what is the secondary chemical likely to be? (b) What was the intended goal of the experiment?

Answers: (a) potassium nitrate (or potassium chlorate) and (b) solid rocket fuel (or sparklers or smoke bombs or...). Sucrose oxidizes readily (toasted marshmallows, anyone?), and potassium salts (KNO3, KClO3) are good oxidizing agents.

It should go without saying, but do not try this at home. Especially do not try mixing bleach with anything. It will not make a stronger cleaner, bug killer, or weed killer. But it might kill you.

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