Friday, 3 March 2017

Set the World on Fire: Chlorine Trifluoride

Anyone who thinks science is boring is either lying or just hasn’t done their research. Not only can science explain the world in a way that no other philosophy can, it can also reveal some truly insane things that seem not to fit in our otherwise mundane experience of reality. Case in point: Chlorine Trifluoride (CTF), a substance so far outside the realm of crazy that even Nazis through in the “putting it to any practical use” towel.

As we all know, one of the coolest things about understanding science is that it allows you to blow stuff up – a fact that the MythBusters put to profitable use for 15 glorious seasons. Usually when governments, scientists or geeks in their backyards with a penchant for pushing the limits of safety want to energetically reduce something to a billion pieces, they use things like TNT, C4, or atomic bombs. Though extremely effective, these materials lack the chaotic flare of CTF.

If you pour CTF onto wood, it will catch fire. If you try to put the fire out with water, the water will catch fire. If you try to smother the flame with sand, gravel or mud they will also ignite. Try to store CTF in a glass beaker for use in your lab and you will behold the delightfully rare site of burning glass followed by the combustion of your lab bench, the concrete floor beneath it and anyone who happens to be standing on the floor below you. Breath in the fumes from the fire and you will die. Jostle it slightly and it will explode. CTF is the most badass stuff on the planet.

The facts of CTF are cool enough but its history is the stuff of movies. Created by Nazi scientists during the second world war, the plan was to use CTF as a low cost, hyper-efficient fuel for rockets. Hitler and his cronies wanted to ramp up production to 90 tonnes per month but after making only 30 tonnes total and experiencing first-hand how impossible the stuff is to deal with they decided to tap the brakes. When Nazis are intimidated by something, you generally want to keep your distance.

The reason CTF is so ridiculous is because of its chemical structure. Comprised of a single Chlorine atom attached to three Fluorine atoms, it is inherently unstable. It has been called “the most vigorous fluorinating agent known to humanity,” meaning that when it comes into contact with other molecules it rips them apart to replace their hydrogen atoms with fluorine. In the process it gives off heat and light, otherwise known as a fluorine fire.

CTF is also a better oxidizing agent than pure oxygen. That means is steals electrons from other atoms, making combustion possible. CTF does this so effectively that there isn’t much that it can’t set on fire including asbestos (generally considered totally flame resistant) and things that have already been burned (eg. ashes).

The only way to store CTF is in a container made of steel, iron, nickel or copper that has been treated with fluorine on the inside. Because there is no hydrogen in the inner lining, only fluorine, the fluorine atoms in CTF have nothing to replace. If you plan to stockpile the stuff, however, you had better pray to whatever deity you believe in (Flying Spaghetti Monsters included) that the inside of the container doesn’t become scratched or compromised in any way… Otherwise, kablamo.

In the 1950’s almost a tonne of CTF was spilled in a warehouse and according to witnesses it “burned straight through a foot of concrete and three feet of gravel while simultaneously releasing a deadly cloud of gas containing a cocktail of chlorine trifluoride, hydrogen fluoride, chlorine and hydrogen chloride that corroded every surface it came into contact with.” 

Today, CTF is used as a cleaning agent in semiconductor manufacturing and as a way to clean uranium residue off the inside of nuclear reactors. There is absolutely no debating, CTF is ridiculous stuff.

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