Saturday, December 17, 2011

Home Labs: Responsible Curiousity

I doubt anyone still has this blog on their readers but I haven't heard much about this story (LINK via Boing Boing). I must say that the guy seemed to have a well organized home laboratory. What he was doing with it seems to be anyone's guess. The picture above is from the police file.

The chemicals that make the article include:
potassium permanganate
potassium nitrate
ammonium nitrate
iron oxide
zinc oxide
copper sulfate
hydrogen peroxide
aluminum powder
sulfamic acid
potassium silicate
sodium bicarbonate
wax shavings
PVC shavings
methyl hydrate
hydrochloric acid

"In his furnace room, he had an electrochemical setup where he seemed to be turning potassium chloride into potassium chlorate"
The only reason that I have emerged a bit from my hole is that this is an issue for me. A former student of mine became a popular local science show leader and over the years developed a home lab of alarming and surprising dimensions. All was well until he died suddenly in a motorcycle accident and left his rather non-scientifically inclined wife to deal with his home lab. We are still sorting through the details but suffice it to say that he was a high school teacher when the local schools were closing down science store rooms and a significant portion of chemicals deemed to dangerous for school ended up in his basement.
So, how do we balance the interests of the non-professional amateur scientist with the practical safety issues related to the use and disposal of the products of reactions that can be done with chemicals from the hardware store?

I do not have any quick answers other than a hope that municiple hazardous waste disposal centers are open to well labelled small (and not so small)amounts of chemicals or a young widow is going to lose a significant portion of her life insurance benefits taking care of what her amateur scientist husband left her.


Chemjobber said...

I guess it depends on how much he had of the relevant items. The stearine, hexamine, acetone and hydrogen peroxide are all vaguely concerning, but again, if it's mgs, who cares?

If it's kilos, I might be concerned.

Liberal Arts Chemist said...

Thanks for dropping by.

You are absolutely right about amounts. In the case of the dude in the article it looks like he was running in the 1/10 of a kilo range for amounts. In the case of my former student it varies from 5 kilos of mercury to multiple five pound bags of thermite mix to 100g amounts of many of things on the list in the post. At least it is all clearly labelled and properly stored (by home lab standards).

Based on my current experience if I had to set some rules for home labs it would start with:
1) clearly label everything
2) destroy or dispose of waste or surplus immediately
3) In your "In Case I Die" file for your spouse keep an updated list of what is in the lab and needs to happen to the home lab.

SpeedyGonzales said...

Hi Liberal Arts Chemist. I was sorry to read about your former student. I assume you are aware of the Chemical Exchange ChemEx program that is reasonably close to where I think you are based on your past blogging, but if not:

Maybe they could help take some chemicals off the young widow's hands?

Liberal Arts Chemist said...

Thanks for the comment and the helpful suggestion. I, in fact, have some Chemex bottles in my storeroom but my experience in the past is that withdrawals are much easier than deposits to ChemEx. That aside, I will pass on the link to the family.

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For a while it was all about research and then it was all about teaching and now it's all about trying to find a balance while teaching at a small liberal arts and science university.