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How Not to Do It

How Not to Do It: Transporting Nitric Acid

NitricVia Reddit’s r/chemistry, we have this alarming footage of what is apparently about two tons of fuming nitric acid that has burst out of a tanker truck. This article on the Russian news site says that it took place several days ago in, Dnepropetrovsk, Ukraine, and that the driver was nowhere to be seen. That’s not very responsible, but I suppose I can understand the temptation just to be somewhere very much else. That evergreen tree is not going to do very well, I fear. . .

52 comments on “How Not to Do It: Transporting Nitric Acid”

  1. Anon says:

    Novel method for nitration of Christmas tree?

  2. agesilaus says:

    “A fire brigade arrived on the scene and washed out the chemicals remaining in the tank. Local authorities assured the population the leak did not pose any danger to public health or the environment, but couldn’t immediately confirm the extent of the damage. No evacuation was ordered.”

    LOL that’s a lie. I often think that the hysteria the occurs when there is any chemical spill is foolish. But this is the first time I’ve seen a case of gross failure to warn people of a deadly danger. But that’s Russia for you.

    There was a case of a similar leak that occurred at a truck stop just north of here, off I-75. Some tank trailers are sub divided into smaller compartments. They load different chemicals into these. And in this case they had nitric acid in one and some organic in the adjacent cell. A leak occurred in the wall between compartments. They truck driver wisely bailed out and the photos look a lot like these.

    1. mosKal says:

      ” But that’s Russia for you”
      It is Ukraine, you idiot.

      1. svi says:

        “It is Ukraine, you idiot.”

        well it is for now.

  3. Sanjay says:

    Hold out hope for the remote possibility that the evergreen tree could be the next Marvel superhero.

    1. Back to the Drawingboard says:

      I am Groot…

      1. Daniel says:

        After something like that, one can understand a tree schlepping off to another Galactic arm where people are hopefully less idiotic..

  4. Peter the Great says:

    Not a particularly common industrial reagent but a well-known material for hypergolic fuels in rockets like the Dnepr series that have been produced in Dnepropetrovsk for decades at the Yuzhmash complex that was built by the Soviet Union a long time ago during a time that Dnepropetrovsk was a closed city. The Dnepr reportedly can lift 3600 kgs into a low-earth orbit and ICBM versions of it were a staple of the Soviet Strategic Rocket Force. SInce the “troubles” in the Ukraine, Russia has severely cut back its business with Yuzhmash but is honoring some long-scheduled satellite launches using the Dnepr.

    1. aairfccha says:

      Dnepr/SS-18/R 36 uses N2O4 as oxidizer not nitric acid but this would leave a fox tail too. Does any current rocket still use (I)RFNA?

  5. milkshake says:

    when I lived in Bay Area, in 2002, we had a trailer transporting 350 ballon drums of nitric acid jack-knifing and overturning a highway. They shut down the highway for the day – you can imagine the commute. Apparently this kind of mishap happens quite often around SF…

  6. Chemjobber says:

    I seem to recall the official Air Force/NASA term for this was a “BFRC.”

  7. John Schilling says:

    Yes, BFRC, and you can work out for yourself the three adjectives that precede “cloud”.

    And I don’t think Yuzhnoye builds anything that uses RFNA as an oxidizer these days. Nitrogen tetroxide is another matter, Pure dehydrated nitric acid, now 100% red fumes in a condensed state. Hard to tell from the image which we are dealing with here, but if it were two tons of NTO in an urban area I would expect prompt casualties.

    Sadly, this is on the list of things I have to work with, and I now know what it smells like. So, yeah, entirely with the driver on this one – run away.

    1. Jon says:

      Check out this clip of the 2013 Proton-M launch failure. 3 stages all fueled by N2O4/UDMH, dropping a few hundred thousand kg. of the flaming mixture onto the ground somewhere disturbingly close to the cameraperson.

  8. Ted says:

    As you travel about this holiday season, consider this app, or the handful of similar versions…

    You never know when you’ll hit the interstate jackpot, and see the 2015 truck cutoff the 1090 truck while headed into the underpass….

    You’ll also understand the look of grim determination on the haggard, timeworn face of the 0154 driver.


    1. Lauren H says:

      This is great! I always want to know what I’m driving next to -It didn’t even occur to me there would be an app for this.

  9. oldnuke says:

    Years ago, I was one of the State Emergency Response Team coordinators (I was a volunteer in state emergency management at the time as their deputy operations officer).

    One of the local big rig towing outfits had towed an “empty” unplacarded trailer to their holding yard south of Wilmington (DE) and left it parked on a side street. The fifth wheel collapsed and the trailer tipped into the corner of a dumpster. The resulting hole allowed most of the contents to pour onto the street and into the storm sewer.

    It turned out that the trailer was not empty, it was full of oleum! Twenty percent sulfur trioxide in sulfuric acid. Yikers. We had that lovely white cloud of SO3 drifting across a busy six lane highway toward an elementary school across the street and coming out of several of the sewer grates nearby.

    Long story short, I “borrowed” two dump truckloads of soda ash from a chemical plant up the road (thank you ICI!) and neutralized it in the sewer along with a couple of thousand gallons of water.

    Thankfully we got everyone out safe. Of course, a lot of people were late getting home that night.

    1. fajensen says:

      Did anyone think of the sewer rats?

  10. Ksr15 says:

    Do those vidiographers have an idea of how dangerous it is to be around that stuff? I certainly would be running right along with the truck driver! If it fuels rockets, it’s probably not good for one’s body, particularly the lungs!

    1. David says:

      Hey, the Mercury rockets were fueled with ethanol.

      1. Slurpy says:

        Also not good for your lungs.

  11. Glowing Student says:

    Not the scariest stuff I’ve seen on a big rig (that goes to a very small canister, all alone on a flatbed, with radioactive and corrosive placards. My guess was UF6, my grandfather who worked for TEMA said it was DU out of Oak Ridge for processing), but that didn’t get spilled.

    1. JP says:

      Once was driving up the 5 in central CA, saw a truck with a thick looking trailer
      marked “Bomb Disposal Department” on it… (!!) several miles later saw another unusual looking truck with “FedEx special delivery”, and Radioactive placards and trefoil… (!!!) Definitely a high water mark in surreal driving experiences.

      Saw the driver later at a restaurant stop… he looked a little nervous, too.

    2. loupgarous says:

      Here where Johnny B. Goode grew up (“back among the evergreens”), Interstate 10 hosts a multiplicity of interesting chemicals by the semitrailer-load. Driving eastward through Louisiana in the direction of Texas, one of the scarier ones is chlorine trifluoride (about which Derek Lowe’s given us a hugely entertaining “Things I Won’t Work With” column, ).

      Honeywell used to have an MSDS web page on chlorine trifluoride with an embedded video showing that it’s hypergolic with raw chicken (which, unfortunately, I can no longer find on the Web). Another video on YouTube shows CF3 is also hypergolic with Plexiglas, rubber gloves, leather gloves, rubber gas masks, wood, and water.

      And yet, I’ve seen semitrailer loads of this stuff on I-10 not once, but about five times. It’s apparently useful as a catalyst in petroleum refining. Not to mention fun when, eventually, a semi full of it jack-knifes during rush hour on the commute between Baton Rouge and points east.

      1. loupgarous says:

        Two errata to correct above:
        trivial correction: you drive WESTWARD on I-10 through Louisiana towards Texas
        not-so-trivial correction: Honeywell’s old chlorine trifluoride subsidiary in Shreveport is now called “Atmospheric Products and Services,” which hosts the entertaining MSDS showing raw chicken flambe a la chlorine trifluoride and quotes John Clark on how a concrete slab, the gravel under it, and the dirt under that was ignited by a ton of CF3 spilled at said Shreveport plant. is the new address for the same document in its new corporate livery.

      2. Jim Neitzel says:

        My scariest sighting were riding Amtrak in the Californian Bay area and going by railroad sidings with long lines of tank cars labeled as 100 % HF

  12. EMF says:

    Agesilaus: To be fair, they probably meant not that there was no danger, but that the damage had already been done. In other words: ‘No reason to leave, but if you weren’t around, count yourself lucky.’

  13. rhodium says:

    Just the fact there is a cargo code for nickel carbonyl makes me question this whole industrial revolution thing.

    1. milkshake says:

      neat ethylene oxide used to be shipped by rail, in tank cars…

    2. Chemjobber says:

      Was the dark of the moon on the sixth of June /
      In a Kenworth pullin’ nickel carbonyl

      1. Sam Adams the Dog says:

        “The Nitro Express:”

  14. oldnuke says:

    Go to one of those “green” solar cell factories and take a look at their inventory.

    More nasty stuff than Love Canal — hydrogen fluoride, arsine, phosphine, … The list goes on and on. We have a plant here locally which would occasionally have releases resulting in response team callouts, evacuations and road closures.

    Green ,,,

    1. Pennpenn says:

      Find a way to produce them without toxic chemicals, hell, find any power generating means that doesn’t involve some chemical or ecological hazards, that’s perfectly ‘green”, and I’m sure plenty of people will be lining up.

  15. Wheels17 says:

    Decades ago I used to work across from a facility that nitrated heavy metals. Fill the vessel with ingots, add the nitric acid. Occasionally, one would get away from them, and the emergency ventilation system would howl up. A big red column shooting into the sky, and everybody in the facility running out onto the emergency balconies on the outside of the building.

  16. Anonymous Researcher snaw says:

    In Gordon R Dickson’s classic SF novel The Spirit of Dorsai, the locals on the Dorsai homeworld use nickel carbonyl to poison an invading army. To prevent the invaders suspecting until too late, some elderly and disabled locals remain in the vicinity with full knowledge of what will happen to them.

    1. Yazeran says:

      Well that one has been used in other places as well.

      The one that comes to my mind is when Londo tells Morden how he intends to remove the Shadows and their ships from the island of Selini by planting nukes and evacuating most people, but as he says:
      “A few stayed behind to maintain the illusion of out presence, they knew what was being asked of them” before pressing the button.
      It was a rare pleasure to watch Morden for once looking distraught!

      1. Daniel says:

        I loved that clip. Like the other respondent, I like smug Morden types losing their cool. My favorite was what Vir wanted, of course. It was Londo’s favorite, too, since he made it happen.

        For the sake of accuracy, however, Londo explained the sacrifice of those remaining on Cellini just after he triggered the nuclear weaponry. Morden’s bravado led to Londo pushing the button.
        “Yes, yes, your ships are very powerful in space, or in the air, but right now, they are… on the ground?”

        “That’s right, Londo, they’re on the ground. But they can sense a ship coming from miles away; so what’re you gonna do, eh–blow up the island?”

        “Well: Now that you mention it…”

        Love that scene.

  17. Pengwn says:

    Found a 4½ minute clip of this incident on YouTube, uploaded by — who else? — Live Leak

    Video -in7TQaIDIs, if you’re as bored as I am

  18. Kevin McLaughlin says:

    Speaking of dangerous nitrogen compounds, here’s a hitherto remarked upon baddie, tamed ostensibly, coming to the aid of type 2 diabetic sufferers.

    1. Yazeran says:

      Eh 2,4-dinitrophenol a drug??

      Why not let it nitrate just a bit more, would make it a much more effective weight-loss drug (if used in large enough quantities) *grin* (making 2,5,6 trinitrophenol)

  19. Nick K says:

    I really hope no one ever lights a campfire underthe nitrated tree in the foreground, otherwise it will go up like guncotton.

    Are we sure the driver didn’t simply dissolve in the vapour?

  20. petros says:

    Re Kevin’s comments on DNP.

    would the FDA really approve something so toxic for a chronic condition, even if in a controlled release form?

  21. Argon says:

    ‘…the driver was nowhere to be seen.’

    Perhaps because he was the puddle next to the truck?

  22. Teukka says:

    Nice to see another entry in the “How not to do it” category, Derek. Along with TIWWW, my favorites here in the pipeline.
    Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to you and the readers !

  23. Nile says:

    As a previous poster pointed out, that’s rocket oxidiser – and not for any civilian hardware. Nor, I think, for anything in the current Russian inventory – FRNA is a first-generation ‘storable propellant’ for second-line weapons sold to allies. Officially, and unofficially: it’s the kind of thing that turns up on the second-hand market from former members of the Warsaw Pact.

    Aftermarket servicing and fuel is… Less than straightforward.

    …So that’s an interesting thing to be transporting, in a war-zone with deniably ‘WE’RE NOT RUSSIANS, NOTHING TO SEE HERE’ militias are definitely *not* in the field and you didn’t see them.

    Of course, it could be going overland to somewhere in the Middle East. SCUD missiles run on FRNA.

  24. Luke says:

    Apparently there was an incident in Spain earlier this year involving a really impressive (nasty!) BFRC from HNO3 and/or N204.

  25. Xmas says:

    This would seem like a good time for an “Ignition” reference.

  26. Harry Miller says:

    The place I used to work made IRFNA (Inhibited Red Fuming Nitric Acid) for the Air Force and an oxidizer for target drones. We took commercial WFNA and added Nitrogen Tetroxide to the proper concentration, and then added 70% HF as (get this) a corrosion inhibitor. The stuff was shipped in a special solid aluminum tanker, owned by the Air Force, with armed escorts. They paid an exorbitant price for this stuff, which was actually pretty easy to make. I always breathed a huge sigh of relief when it finally hit the road. (The AF took possession as soon as it was loaded).

    1. Semichemist says:

      “We took commercial WFNA and added Nitrogen Tetroxide to the proper concentration, and then added 70% HF as (get this) a corrosion inhibitor.”

      This sentence makes me want to crawl back into bed

      1. dave w says:

        It’s been a standard rocket oxidant formula (since the mid 1950’s, under the name “IRFNA” – “inhibited red fuming nitric acid”) – really dry “white” nitric acid (pure HNO3) is a bit unstable (decomposes to N2O4 + O2 + H2O, which weakens the propellant and pressurizes the storage tank with oxygen) – several percent N2O4 (the “red fuming”) is added to push the equilibrium the other way, and to help improve hypergolic ignition. The HF (total concentration ~0.6% in the final mixture) is in fact an effective corrosion inhibitor for some metals (e.g., aluminum and steel); it maintains a fluoride layer on the metal surface that is resistant to attack by the nitric acid itself.

  27. Shion_Arita says:

    The first lab we have the undergrads do in gen chem lab is to treat copper with nitric acid. I hated TAing that lab. 50+ inexperienced students happily evolving NO2 with no real hoods, only those sucker-on-jointed-arms things, which a sufficient fraction of the kids did not keep low enough no matter how much I warned them.

    Suffice it to say I know what NO2 smells like.

  28. Harry Miller says:

    If you’re at all interested in this subject, I highly recommend reading “Ignition!” by John Clark. Very entertaining read and he was there for nearly all of the hypergolic fuels research.

    1. Rich Lambert says:

      Thanks for the link. Very interesting.

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