Picric Acid 8/21/22

History with Richard Bleil

My first teaching gig was in Ohio in a very small medical arts college associated with a rather powerful medical center.  It seems as if usually, when I start a new position, I find the errors of my predecessors.  No doubt, those who followed me also found my errors.  For example, in South Dakota, my predecessor told his students that the “explosion proof” refrigerator was bult so if a bomb went off that leveled the entire building, the refrigerator would be fine.  Anybody who saw the refrigerator would know that it’s no tougher than any other refrigerator.  The only thing that was different was that the electronics were on the outside of the refrigerator, rather than on the inside.  See, if you store organic solvents in the refrigerator (which you shouldn’t anyway, especially since there’s no reason to do so), organic vapors will inevitably build up inside of the refrigerator.  An explosion proof refrigerator is simply designed so there will never be a spark inside of the refrigerator causing an explosion. 

Working in Ohio, taking inventory early in my career there, I found a jar of picric acid.  Picric acid is an organic compound that is a shock-sensitive explosive, about twenty percent more powerful than TNT.  The military considered using it in hand grenades, but they couldn’t make it safe enough to kill people. 

As a shock-sensitive explosive, the slightest disturbance can set it off.  It’s actually fairly common in organic labs.  It’s used to help identify unknown organic compounds and is stored as a solution.  As long as there is at least thirty percent water, it’s stable.  In a saturated solution, even with crystals in the bottle, there is more than enough water to ensure stability.  Unfortunately, in this stockroom, the picric acid was solid, and originally had enough water (barely) to ensure stability, but it was in an amber bottle, and had been opened.  It was impossible to see inside the bottle to see if it still had enough moisture to be safe.

On finding it, I secured the stockroom and went to the dean to inform him of the dangerous chemical.  There were roughly a hundred grams of it (according to the label), but since I couldn’t see inside the bottle, I had no idea if it was safe or not.  So, we evacuated the college, and called in the bomb squad.  The college was across the street from a lovely park.  The bomb squad dug a ten-foot-deep hole in the middle of the park, had the police secure the park and clear everybody out, and filled a dump-truck with sand.  They brought the sand in, and in full bomb gear, and put it in the truck.  The process of bringing it out of the building took about forty-five minutes.  They drove the truck across the street, which took another hour as they were going so slowly.  They put the jar into the hole along with a blasting cap, about as powerful as a firecracker.  They all backed up and detonated the blasting cap with a remote control. 

The explosion was incredible, shaking windows for about a quarter mile away.  There was a fireball that came out of the hole that was about ten feet high.  The story ended up on the local news, with me as one of the people they interviewed.  Many years later, in a grocery store, I was recognized by a woman who said she saw me on the news.  It was quite shocking since I was on the air for maybe ten seconds, but there you go. 

Some days later, a student stopped by my office that I didn’t now previously.  Rather sheepishly, she thanked me for saving her life and the lives of the other students in the school.  I doubt that I was that much of a hero, but she certainly did appreciate what I had done, including simply recognizing the danger the picric acid represented, something that at least two of my predecessors didn’t realize (or they didn’t notice the presence of the picric acid). 

I was once asked what I did when I found the jar, so I acted it out for them with a mug.  I picked up the mug, looked on the label, and as soon as I noticed what it was, I slammed the jar (mug) back down again.  But then, I immediately picked it back up so I could set it down more gently.  Of course, it was a joke.  I did pick up the jar, but had I actually slammed it down, I would today be a stain on the wall of the stockroom with a memorial plaque to commemorate my, well, loss, I guess.

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