As I start this piece, I am on the outside terrace of a 6th floor building in Addis, watching all the traffic whipping in and out around the construction going on below.
All the vehicles I see on the street are powered by petrochemicals. Yes, even the electric vehicles, if there are any in Addis, as that is more a first-world gimmick. These gas or diesel engines take in the air we breathe and add a bit of fuel to it, compresses the crap out of it and ignite it. What takes place is an explosion that is transferred into a mechanical means to move the vehicle.
This topic started when I watched the tragic explosion that took place a few days ago in the great State of Texas. My sympathies and prayers go out to those good people, especially the first responders who perished. It reminds me of the many medical personnel and firefighters who perished because of the heinous act of 911. I know, some of you may say, Come on Dwaine, that was a decade ago. Doesn’t matter. It was on American soil by terrorists, who to this day want us dead. But as I say sometimes, I digress.
I’ve always had a love of Science and enjoy asking the younger generation questions about it. One of my favorite questions to ask them is: What is the speed of light?
When I heard the tragic news of the enormous tragic explosion near Waco, I was reminded of the explosion we had of a chemical plant in the Texas Panhandle many years ago. This was a plant that took butane, compressed it, then heated it to produce Nylon, Rayon and many other chemicals in use by the world.
One Saturday afternoon, my four kids were watching the old classic, Wizard of Oz. At the breath-taking point where Dorothy and Toto are heading for the cellar with the terrible tornado bearing down on them, she runs to the cellar door, kicking on it yelling, Auntie Em, Auntie Em!! The scene is exciting and my kids were on edge, when suddenly, our house shook! The aluminum panel on the back storm door suddenly blew in. My kids who were lying down on the floor, suddenly raised up and looked at me as if I would know what happened. It seemed that the house was about to be lifted up by a terrible tornado!
I tried to remain calm and cool and told them, It’s okay, no problem. Then casually went to the back door with its panel hanging inside the kitchen and looked out. I could see smoke in a distance toward the plant where I worked. But it was also in the direction of a large chemical plant.
There was a rising plume of smoke that resembled the explosive blasts that I would see in later years in Afghanistan. There was something terribly wrong. In minutes, the radio started broadcasting that an explosion took place at the chemical plant.
To this day, I am not sure of the actual sequence of the explosion, but I understood the plant had a high pressure steam line that ruptured, which in turn caused the high pressure, super heated butane line to rupture. Reports were, there were two explosions. The first was the steam line, and the second was the butane igniting.
The time span between the two explosions is what determined how massive the second was. Because the longer the gas had time escape, the larger the cloud was forming, until something ignited it. Maybe a boiler or water heater, no one would ever be able to determine.
As in many tragedies, human lives were lost. Only three, but still a massive tragedy, as if the number lost determines that.
As I would learn later, vehicles on the highway nearby had windshields blown out. In town, businesses had their front picture windows broken, some forcefully. I determined my house was eight miles by crow flight, and the blast was able to push in the panel on my back door. To pardon the expression, One hell of a blast. And yet, the blast that took place at the fertilizer plant near Waco, was enormous compared to what I experienced many years ago.
My interest in Science, enveloped chemistry among others. I had always wanted to make nitroglycerin, but in my research I found out you have to boil it. That just didn’t sound safe to me. I did have a friend who made it and tested it on his dog’s house. Last I heard, his father took his chemistry set away.
In the many years that progressed, I also learned to create true gunpowder. It consisted of Potassium Nitrate (commonly called Saltpeter), charcoal and sulfur. I would find the saltpeter and sulfur at one of the local pharmacies. Mixed together with charcoal acquired from BBQ briquettes should form gunpowder, but mine just flared up like a highway flare.
In my youth, one of my older brothers, perhaps the orneriest one, taught me how to make Nitrogen Tri-iodide, (NI3) A contact explosive. It is created by mixing two very common ingredients found in most homes.
The chemical is harmless until it dries, then becomes very sensitive to touch. Over the following years I took advantage of this secret, by placing it in areas that would equal my orneriness. For instance, under the commode seats at school. It was not harmful unless it was actually touched by a human hand. But it makes a very loud bang. I even placed it in a pencil sharpener. It is extremely corrosive, as most explosives are, so the pencil sharpener was pretty much useless afterwards.
Over the years, I imparted this wisdom to those younger than me, but avoided telling it to my own children. But I did give the secret to my stepdaughter knowing she would not use it, or I don’t think she did.
When I was a welder at a manufacturing plant, I worked with an individual who insisted on placing his lunch box right in the middle of the small table where we ate our lunch, making it difficult for everyone else to eat. So, one morning, when he was in the locker room changing clothes, I placed some of the contact explosive on the latches of his lunch box.
He did not know what caused the little bangs that left blisters on his thumbs, but he knew I had something to do with it.
In my younger years, a buddy and I found where the local telephone company threw away their old batteries. This was before the strict regulations came about on waste management. I collected many batteries this way which still had some juice in them, and used them in experiments. These were large batteries that had several different voltages on them. It was an amazing find!
One of the things I used them for, was electrolysis. I found I could run an electric current through certain liquids and extract various gasses out of them. I come from a family of nine kids, so everything was bought in bulk when possible. This included laundry detergent. I happen to notice the big bag of soap had phosphorous in its makeup. Now I had read a lot about phosphorus and thought it would be cool to get some. So, I took some of the soap, added water and placed it in a bowl with the two electrodes connected to one of the big phone company batteries.
I left for awhile and when I returned, there was this large black mass of suds forming out of the bowl like some science fiction movie. I thought, Cool!!
Now, here is where I went wrong. For some reason, I picked up a match and lit it and stuck it in the bubbly mess. What took place is a very loud bang, and shot black foamy stuff all over my bedroom walls. Giving myself a few minutes to let the ringing in my ears die away, I realized the bubbles were comprised of hydrogen and oxygen. But alas, no phosphorus that I could see. I quickly cleaned up the mess and no one in the family was wiser. … I think.
Chemistry is an amazing thing, and when it goes awry, it is deadly. When it is controlled properly, the world moves with it.
By the way, the speed of light, commonly referred to as “C”, is 186,282 miles per second. Or for you metric people, it’s 300,000 kilometers per second.
Don’t forget that. You never know when I’m going to come up and ask you the value of “C”.