Orla Sherwood uncovers the world’s most extreme chemistry.
WHEN we consider chemicals, we imagine a wide group composed of liquids, powders, medicines and poisons. Chemicals in our lives range from the acetic acid (vinegar) on our chips to household bleach. The necessity of these substances in every facet of our lives makes it imperative to learn more about them.
We all know that too much acetic acid will make our chips bitter, but what about too much fluoroantimonic acid? This acid is the strongest known acid in the world, meaning that an innocent spill will melt everything in sight…. even fingers if you are the unlucky researcher. So how do we study the most extreme and dangerous chemicals in the world and what are they?
Fluoroantimonic acid is the mystery member of the acids. We know very little about it apart from its reluctance to be studied. It melts glass, any safety equipment designed to date and can melt through bones, making researchers understandably reluctant to put themselves in the line of fire.
“It melts glass, any safety equipment designed to date and can melt through bones”
Mentioning the line of fire, let us not forget the wonderful world of explosives. Extreme explosives are those which explode following the slightest pressure; exposure to water, sunlight or just doing absolutely nothing.
Azidoazide azide is a member of this group and is composed predominantly of nitrogen atoms. Nitrogen atoms usually travel in pairs joined by an immensely stable triple bond. Nitrogens joined by this bond are separated only when struck by lightning.
However the chemical azidoazide azide has zero triple bonds and relentlessly seeks to react with another compound to form a nitrogen-nitrogen triple bond. Following their discovery of this frightening compound, the Klapötke lab stated that “[the] sensitivity of C2N14 is beyond our capabilities of measurement”. It is unlikely that other laboratories will step up to the plate to study one of the most dangerous substances known to man.
Armies and military groups of the world are the predominant researchers of these unpredictable chemicals and perhaps the only individuals brave (or foolhardy) enough. The desire to find the most efficient and reactive explosive as a weapon is the driving force for this research.
“The sensitivity of C2N14 is beyond our capabilities of measurement”
In the case of Nazi Germany, as the Second World War was getting underway, substance N (chlorine trifluoride) was investigated as a method of chemical warfare. Unfortunately, this chemical is highly reactive with air, water and induces death if inhaled. Its use is limited to a role as the world’s most extreme cleaning method as it burns at a toasty 2400°C.
What about dangerous elements? Certain members of the periodic table such as cadmium and fluorine are central components of the Earth’s crust, making an encounter with them unavoidable in our lives. However, these elements are often highly toxic, causing cancer and damage to the unborn child. Fluorine itself is highly toxic in large volumes, but 3 mg is absolutely essential for our survival as human beings.
Clearly the world of chemistry is an exciting one. Who doesn’t crave a change from the dull, dreary, repetitive work days? However, I’m not sure I’d swap my life for a day in the life of an extreme chemist. Erich Krause, a German chemist, died by toxic inhalation in his lab. I think I’ll take too much vinegar with my chips instead.