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Chlorine Trifluoride: Some Empirical Findings

Over the years, I’ve probably had more hits on my “Sand Won’t Save You This Time” post than on any other single one on the site. That details the fun you can have with chloride trifluoride, and believe me, it continues (along with its neighbor, bromine trifluoride) to be on the “Things I Won’t Work With” list. The only time I see either of them in the synthetic chemistry literature is when a paper by Shlomo Rozen pops up (for example), but despite his efforts on its behalf, I still won’t touch the stuff.
And if anyone needs any more proof as to why, I present this video, made at some point by some French lunatics. You may observe the mild reactivity of this gentle substance as it encounters various common laboratory materials, and draw your own conclusions. We have Plexiglas, a rubber glove, clean leather, not-so-clean leather, a gas mask, a piece of wood, and a wet glove. Some of this, under ordinary circumstances, might be considered protective equipment. But not here.

44 comments on “Chlorine Trifluoride: Some Empirical Findings”

  1. WhatFun says:

    The book “Ignition!” by John D. Clark is available online as a .pdf here:
    It has a wonderful discussion of ClF3 and its energetic cousins.
    The rest of the website is also interesting, as one might surmise from its name.

  2. Matthew says:

    I can just see some Texan watching this and thinking “BBQ!”

  3. Texan Chemist says:

    We here in Texas have the know-how to make anything work for our benefit. ClF3? Psshhhhh. Bring it to Texas and we’ll be taking shots of the stuff.

  4. David Formerly Known as a Chemist says:

    This looks like an Al Qaeda training video, both in content and quality.

  5. D.J. says:

    Well, for one thing that post got you an Instalanche (of which I was a part), and your Things I Won’t Work With and How Not To Do It categories are the most accessible to the non-chemists. I know that when I generally send links to your blog, it’s either to ClF3 or Hexanitrohexaazaisowurtzitane to get people hooked.

  6. Nekekami says:

    I usually link to ClF3 first and, while they are still incredulous about that, then go on to tell them that there’s worse and link them to FOOF

  7. Hap says:

    4: Well, then, that’s one problem solved. If they can handle ClF3 well, then I guess we’re screwed. More likely, though, they can’t, in which case Darwinian evolution will quickly rear its ugly head.
    “Be kind to dragons, for you are crunchy and taste good with ketchup.”

  8. Anonymous says:

    Who else is going to handle the dangerous stuff if not proper chemists? Safe handling is the key to reliable safety, not avoidance…

  9. Hap says:

    Even if you have the confidence and ability to handle ClF3 safely, ClF3 is bad enough that if you make a mistake (and everyone does, eventually), then very bad things are going to happen. You avoid risks when they are unnecessary – when you can’t do something another way, when the other ways have more significant safety risks, or when the other ways are unreliable or otherwise unuseful (and the last point has a rather high bar attached). Just because an animal trainer can coat himself in barbeque sauce and tame a lion doesn’t mean he should.

  10. D-Not says:

    Generic januvia is now approved by the Indian Government for sale in India.
    here comes Cheap Januvia !!! Onglyza to follow.
    other medicines will likewise will hopefully be available cheaply.

  11. D-Not says:

    Merck sues India’s Glenmark for stomping on Januvia patent – FiercePharma
    Good Luck Merck !!

  12. dave w says:

    From the item at the Google Books link: “BrF3 is a commercial reagent, but it could also be readily prepared by anybody having a fluorine line.”
    “Anybody” seems a little disingenuous: it seems like a “fluorine line” may not be that common a piece of lab infrastructure!

  13. followerchemist says:

    insert substance = boom. IMMENSE.will show this to some of the students in the lab who think there project is going wrong, I mean it could be worse you could be on this one when it’s going right!

  14. Anonymous BMS Researcher says:

    My wife’s comment: if it’s late on a Friday and the chemists start acting manic, LEAVE THE BUILDING!

  15. matt says:

    @DFKaaC #4 Re: image quality. Cut ’em some slack, blast proof glass which has apparently seen quite a few blasts tends to be crazed.

  16. metaphysician says:

    I’m not sure I want to know what kind of work would require a fluorine line in your lab. . .
    For that matter, how would you even run a fluorine line? Wouldn’t the much greater length of piping involved greatly ( unacceptably ) increase the risk of a fluorine leak?

  17. Notta Dr. Dot says:

    I’m with DJ up yonder. I stumbled upon this via a search for ClF3 (I think it was from Wikipedia). I’d wondered if people weren’t being a tad overcautious with some of this. I wonder no more. I can’t recall a time when my eyebrows stayed buried up in my hairline for such an extended period of time than when reading some of these stories, and this video takes the prize.

  18. Notta Dr. Dot says:

    I’m with DJ up yonder. I stumbled upon this via a search for ClF3 (I think it was from Wikipedia). I’d wondered if people weren’t being a tad overcautious with some of this. I wonder no more. I can’t recall a time when my eyebrows stayed buried up in my hairline for such an extended period of time than when reading some of these stories, and this video takes the prize.

  19. Jon B. says:

    It was someone linking your “Sand Won’t Save You This Time” that lead me to your blog and other posts. It got me several good reads like Max Gergel’s books and Ignition. The book I’ve wanted to but haven’t found anywhere is The Green Flame. It’s totally out of print, no longer available on Amazon etc. and the author for whatever reason hasn’t posted an online version of it. I may try an interlibrary loan at my alma mater but this would probably turn complicated. Any better ideas? I just want to read it. I don’t need to own it.

  20. Randy Owens says:

    What a happy coincidence. I was just re-reading the old “sand won’t save you” post, and thought I might check the “things I won’t work with” category again, even though it doesn’t seem to get added to very often these days. Now, time to watch the video . . . .

  21. Bruce Hamilton says:

    The author of “The Green Flame” ( about classified boron-based jet and rocket fuel research ) appears to have sold publication rights to the ACS, who no longer publish it, but may still constrain him from putting the book online.
    He has a web site that offers a brief synopsis and a short later update. The Wayback Machine might find full chapters that he apparently posted earlier.

  22. Dr. Mel says:

    I think as physical sciences we all understand that explosions are the result of confined space (flask, cylinder or room) and expanding contents. The contents do not have to be toxic or corrosive. I *was* a fluorine chemist. My first vacuum line was in a fumehood with the group fluorine cylinder. I can remember my “Notta Dr. Dot Eyebrow Response” at the time to a JACS paper about the NMR of supercritical solutions in sealed NMR tubes that had the coolest danger footnotes about exploding NMR tubes at inconvenient times.

  23. Chris says:

    Another ex-fluorine chemist here… Look up Air Products Safetygram 39, it’s a datasheet for handling ClF3. There appears to be a new sanitised version on their site. If you dig around you can also find the older one which has pictures of ClF3 + raw chicken. There is supposed to be a video of the trials reported in the Safetygram but sadly I don’t think it’s been posted online.

  24. dave w says:

    ISTR hearing somewhere that the process for extracting the plutonium from ‘spent’ uranium fuel at Hanford started out with dissolving the whole mess in ClF3…!

  25. Chris Buckey says:

    It’s the light elevator jazz music that really makes that video something special.

  26. Dan says:

    Safetygram 39 (including raw chicken) is available here:

  27. Wave says:

    I just read your post on hydrogen fluoride and it brought back some memories. HF used to be used in absorption cells for high-precision velocity measurements of stars. The light from the telescope was passed through a cell filled with liquid hydrogen fluoride, which would imprint its set of nicely-spaced absorption lines onto the spectrum of the object being observed. The grid of HF lines would then serve as a high-precision reference for calculating the exact wavelength of the observed lines.
    Unfortunately, to a grad student, the cell itself mostly served as a terrifying reminder of your own mortality. Drop it and your adviser would suddenly have some free grant money…
    These days the HF cells have largely been replaced with iodine gas, and a generation of sleep-deprived, clumsy astronomers breathes easier.

  28. Keith S. says:

    By the way, since you mentioned ClF3’s bromine cousin, there’s a YouTube of that as well, where they’re apparently using it to test a candidate material for lab aprons or similar protective gear:

  29. Mr. Cat says:

    I love that it is of note to one of the observers in the video that the clean leather glove did not explode. (And then the dirty one did!)

  30. Thanks for this wonderful post.

  31. Thanks for this wonderful post. 🙂

  32. Colin says:

    It wasn’t until I saw the damn housebrick go up like a block of magnesium that I truly began to respect this compound.

  33. Matt says:

    Colin, that wasn’t a brick, unfortunately. Just wood. But as far as I can tell this is just pouring the ClF3 onto various combustibles.
    We need a part two with asbestoss and cinderblocks.

  34. andrew says:

    Matt, I agree considering that it would light concrete on fire, and with enough of it, burn through about a meter of it.

  35. Baylink says:

    I cannot help thinking, everytime I visit your page, that this is the material for a book:
    Sand Won’t Save You This Time:
    Chlorine trifluoride, and other delightful chemical compounds I want no part of

  36. Dizzy Bint says:

    Matt – “We need a part two with asbestoss and cinderblocks.”
    Good lord Matt, don’t go giving them ideas…

  37. Getheren says:

    According to this “Safetygram”, an industrial spill of 907 kg of ClF3 burned through 30 cm of concrete and 90 cm of gravel underneath. (One hopes that nobody around was stupid enough to spray water on this fire.)
    Definitely stuff that merits a healthy respect.
    John D. Clark wrote of the incident in *Ignition!*, saying of the only fatality, “He was a hundred yards away, at Mach 2 and still accelerating, when his heart stopped.”

  38. Getheren says:

    While we’re at it, here is an MSDS for this delightful stuff. I particularly like the phrase “Swallowing. An unlikely route of exposure.”

  39. Alex says:

    I rather liked ‘Effects of Repeated (Chronic) Overexposure: No information available.’

  40. Peter says:

    You are a great man! A little Vietnamese girl used to come over to our house and say, “Mr. Peter, I want you to do science experiments with me!” We did many experiments. But I was not nearly so imaginative as you! God will bless you for posting your films, friend!

  41. hackbarth says:

    Here’s an study to use Lithium-Fluorine-Hydrogen as a propelant for spacecraft. Something that make Nuclear Orion Drives seem safe:

  42. John Savard says:

    I noticed one minor amusing thing about that study. It noted that one change reduced combustion chamber temperatures from “9800 R (5440 K)” to a lower value.
    The R stands for Rankine, which is to Fahrenheit as Kelvin is to Celsius. But it’s not that surprising that this appears in a NASA report, as the first time I heard of the Rankine temperature scale was in a book on the theory of aviation.

  43. Clubcard says:

    The book ‘Ignition!’ is on the web, digitized. I think it would be something you would enjoy reading. The Russians using red, fuming nitric acid for propellant. H2O2, always the bridesmade. Pity it doesn’t have a discourse on the high explosives they made… probably still under lock and key.

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