Warning: The article you’re about to read contains in depth information about a lethal substance. Please, don’t try it at home.
Talking of chemicals, you might think of acidic chemicals as the most corrosive substances; you’re not far from right, but you’d give it a second thought. The likes of hydrochloric acids are indeed dangerous, but if you start talking about ‘chlorine trifluoride,’ then, all hell would break lose. This liquid chemical is so corrosive that it can make practically anything burst into flames on contact. We’re pretty sure the compound’s common name is “NOPE.” And as we advised, nope, never try it at all.
Related media: The “Nope” Chemical That is Chlorine Trifluoride
NOPE: The Chemical Of Hades
Fluorine is known as the most powerful oxidizing agent out of all the elements — as a matter of fact, it’s so reactive that it turns water into oxygen on contact. This makes it impossible to preserve the element in solution. Back in the 1930s, two scientists, Otto Ruff and H. Krug were on the quest to find a chemical which was easier to handle, and easily reactive as well. They finally isolated the compound chlorine trifluoride (ClF3), which was liquid (check!) and even more reactive than fluorine (double check!). Fortunately, it turned out that it was a bit too reactive. But unfortunately, it easily catches fire upon a sprinkling it on virtually anything that’s inextinguishable.
During World War II, the Nazis had an interest in ClF3 — no wonder — since they could use this as an incredibly effective chemical weapon which happened to be cheap to produce as well. In particular, ClF3 would make for perfectly destructive flamethrowers and bombs in combat. They started churning the chemical out by the tons before they realized that it was way too dangerous and reactive to handle. Only 30 tons of the chemical were ever produced, but luckily, it was never used in combat.
Unsurprisingly, the only known “safe” way to store ClF3 is to seal it up in containers made of steel, iron, nickel, or copper — after they’ve been treated with fluorine gas. This creates a thin fluoride layer inside the container, which keeps the chemical from reacting with the container; but there’s an exception, if it’s not carefully, perfectly, and properly treated, then hell breaks loose, kaboom goes the vessel. Fortunately for us, the chemical was banned after World War II under the Chemical Weapons Convention. So you don’t have to worry about it.
Inextinguishable Upon Ignition
By now, you might be wondering what makes ClF3 so corrosive. To understand why, let’s rewind and take a crash course of oxidation agents. Oxidizing agents cause substances to lose electrons. The elements oxygen, hydrogen peroxide, and the halogens — typically fluorine, chlorine, iodine, and others — are common examples of oxidizing agents. ClF3 serves as an effective oxidizer, one that’s unsurprisingly too effective. It’s been used to clean oxides off of surfaces, but, in general, it’s probably too powerful for it’s own use. Incredibly, it oxidizes so well that it can set fire resistant materials ablaze — even famously flame-retardant asbestos.
Let’s illustrate it’s unprecedented violent power with an accident from the 1950s. A ton of ClF3 was accidentally spilled on the floor of a warehouse. Upon it’s spill, it quickly burned right through a 30-centimeter (a foot) of concrete floor and 90 centimeters (3 feet) of gravel. The process also released a deadly hot cloud of hydrofluoric acid that burned everything in it’s path. Terrifyingly, there was absolutely no way to extinguish it, either. Even pouring water or anything else on it will just trigger the flames in an explosive way. You just have to wait for it to do it’s damage. That’s one hell of a disaster.
You Gotta Runaway
“It is, of course, extremely toxic, but that’s the least of the problem.”
John D. Clark, a chemist who had firsthand experience dealing with ClF3 while developing rocket fuel, had this to say about the chemical:
“It is hypergolic with [that is, it explodes in contact with] every known fuel, and so rapidly hypergolic that no ignition delay has ever been measured. It is also hypergolic with such things as cloth, wood, and test engineers, not to mention asbestos, sand, and water — with which it reacts explosively.”
“It can be kept in some of the ordinary structural metals — steel, copper, aluminium, etc. — because of the formation of a thin film of insoluble metal fluoride which protects the bulk of the metal, just as the invisible coat of oxide on aluminium keeps it from burning up in the atmosphere. If, however, this coat is melted or scrubbed off, and has no chance to reform, the operator is confronted with the problem of coping with a metal-fluorine fire. For dealing with this situation, I have always recommended a good pair of running shoes.”
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Written by: Nana Kwadwo, Sun, Feb 10, 2019.