Bucket Chemistry!
    By Robert H Olley | August 31st 2010 02:40 PM | 6 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
    About Robert H

    Until recently, I worked in the Polymer Physics Group of the Physics Department at the University of Reading.

    I would describe myself


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    One month to go before the Physics Department closes!  And I have the job of classifying and disposing of unwanted and waste chemicals.  This year, when “everything must go”, this is proving a mammoth task.

    How did I get this job?  Being the only practicing chemist in the department, in effect I am Snape, the Potions Master.  This in not only because of my academic training, but my work has taught me what chemical can go with which without creating an explosion (for example, NOT acetone and chloroform!)

    Mostly this job involves putting the appropriate hazard label on bottles or jar and relocating them to the outside store for collection by the chosen waste disposal company.  But there are some examples where one can make things simpler.

    Fuming nitric acid, for example.  Now one does NOT want to put this in the outside store, where its vapours will slowly eat away the labels on the surrounding bottles.  However, if one pours it gently into a bucket full of water with some caustic soda at the bottom, as below

    one is left with a solution of sodium nitrate, which is a fertilizer, and the whole can be diluted with a copious amount of water and flushed down the sink.

    Notice the brown fumes of nitrogen dioxide coming out of the bucket.  Not something one wants in high concentrations or in large amounts where it becomes a pollutant.  But it is also produced by lightning, where it enters the nitrogen cycle by forming nitrate, a food for plants.  Much better, in my opinion, to manage things this way than to leave such a hazardous chemical for unskilled workers to collect.


    In today's environmentally conscious world, where enormous amounts of fertiliser is already adversely effecting the biosphere with agricultural run-off one would think that purposely adding it to one's watershed would not be something one would admit to, let alone blog about. ;)


    Right - doing that without wearing goggles! Notice that the glasses are protecting his nose. At least he is using a hood - that's a big plus and unusual in most academic departments where professors think they know what to do. And what was a Physics department doing with fuming Nitric Acid? Having spent 25 years in EH&S work at different universities I wish I could say this is unusual, but it isn't. There really isn't an effective way to precipitate out the nitrate so drain disposal is about all there is - - of course a better idea would be to find a chemical exchange, but if departments are shutting down that is hard to do.

    Those are safety spectacles that I am wearing!

    Polymer physics, in which I have been employed for approaching 38 years, uses a lot of chemical techniques.  Polyethylene and Polypropylene, in particular, are resistant to most chemicals and so require strong acid mixtures to selectively etch their morphology.  As to another research group, perchloric acid comes into diamond cleaning mixtures. 

    I have been in charge of chemical safety for some years now, and I have lost a lot of hair keeping tabs on students and their chemical practice.  Hydrofluoric acid is one of my bugbears.

    Some years ago we had a student doing work with potentially carcinogenic red and yellow dyes.  She seemed to regard them almost as if they were chilli powder and turmeric.  When it came to rounding up her materials for disposal, for short we referred to them as “WMD”.
    Robert H. Olley / Quondam Physics Department / University of Reading / England
    Safety glasses DO NOT PROTECT eyes against chemical splashes. Never have, never will. Safety glasses are for flying particles, not liquids that can run down your forehead into your eyes. And if you don't understand the difference then you really don't understand safety - - it is about using the PROPER equipment to mitigate a risk. That said, I'm retired and no longer have to fight these fights.

    Safety glasses DO NOT PROTECT eyes against chemical splashes.
    You are right about this, but
    And if you don't understand the difference then you really don't understand safety
    is it necessary to express yourself in such a vehement manner?  I can perhaps understand your frustration with having to deal with those above and below yourself in the hierarchy, but if there is to be meaningful discussion a little politeness goes a long way.

    I could also a tale unfold ...
    Robert H. Olley / Quondam Physics Department / University of Reading / England
    Polymerization is the process of combining many small molecules known as monomers into a covalently bonded chain. During the polymerization process, some chemical groups may be lost from each monomer. This is the case, for example, in the polymerization of PET polyester.