from the things-that-go-up-[in-flames] dept.
It's rare that the forthcoming publishing of a book fills me with excitement and anticipation. Doubly rare when said book has been out of print for decades. Elon Musk may have popularized the term RUD (Rapid Unscheduled Disassembly), but his experiences can barely hold a candle to the tales told by John D Clark, author of Ignition! An Informal History of Liquid Rocket Propellants. Read on for the scoop from Ars Technica:
Often hilarious, always informative, this history of rocket science is a must-read.
It's rare that a book about as high-minded and serious a topic as rocket science manages to be both highly informative and laugh-out-loud funny. But if there's a better way to describe John Clark's Ignition!, I've yet to discover it. A cult classic among chemists, many of the rest of us discovered the book via one of Derek Lowe's tales of hilariously scary chemicals.
[...] Rutgers University Press has decided to dust it off and reissue it. From May it will finally be possible to put a physical copy on one's bookshelf. And honestly, if you've got any interest in chemistry—particularly the branch of it involving violent, energetic, and occasionally explosive reactions—it's a book you need to read.
Ignition! is a history of liquid rocket propellants, but it's also a history of cold war and the space race, told from a particular point of view. Clark was the chief chemist at a rocket lab in New Jersey, operated first by the US Navy, then US Army. He was a central figure in what was a relatively small field, one with a definite purpose. This wasn't science just for science's sake, but a quest to find new oxidizers and fuels for rocket engines, to make better missiles or space probes.
The propellants being asked for would have to be liquids throughout a range of temperatures, and preferably completely innocuous and easily stored until reacting violently together upon combination. However, if you guessed that many of the chemicals suitable for energetic reactions in a rocket often tend to react energetically in many other situations—often with no provocation at all—Clark's tales of "catastrophic self-disassembly" might not be entirely surprising.
Pricing ranges from $24.95 to $95.00 with pre-orders being accepted now. A PDF is available on February 14th; other formats and a reduced-price PDF is available on May 15th.
Read on for a sample passage from Chapter 6 of Ignition!:
While all of this was going on there were a lot of people who were not convinced that peroxide, or acid, or nitrogen tetroxide was the last word in storable oxidizers, nor that something a bit more potent couldn't be found. An oxygen-based oxidizer is all very well, but it seemed likely that one containing fluorine would pack an impressive wallop. And so everybody started looking around for an easily decomposed fluorine compound that could be used as a storable oxidizer.
[...] Chlorine trifluoride, ClF3, or "CTF" as the engineers insist on calling it, is a colorless gas, a greenish liquid, or a white solid. It boils at 12° (so that a trivial pressure will keep it liquid at room temperature) and freezes at a convenient -76°. It also has a nice fat density, about 1.81 at room temperature.
It is also quite probably the most vigorous fluorinating agent in existence—much more vigorous than fluorine itself. Gaseous fluorine, of course, is much more dilute than the liquid ClF3, and liquid fluorine is so cold that its activity is very much reduced.
All this sounds fairly academic and innocuous, but when it is translated into the problem of handling the stuff, the results are horrendous. It is, of course, extremely toxic, but that's the least of the problem. It is hypergolic 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, aluminum, 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 aluminum 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. And even if you don't have a fire, the results can be devastating enough when chlorine trifluoride gets loose, as the General Chemical Co. discovered when they had a big spill.
[...] It happened at their Shreveport, Louisiana, installation, while they were preparing to ship out, for the first time, a one-ton steel cylinder of CTF. The cylinder had been cooled with dry ice to make it easier to load the material into it, and the cold had apparently embrittled the steel. For as they were maneuvering the cylinder onto a dolly, it split and dumped one ton of chlorine trifluoride onto the floor. It chewed its way through twelve inches of concrete and dug a three-foot hole in the gravel underneath, filled the place with fumes which corroded everything in sight, and, in general, made one hell of a mess. Civil Defense turned out, and started to evacuate the neighborhood, and to put it mildly, there was quite a brouhaha before things quieted down. Miraculously, nobody was killed, but there was one casualty — the man who had been steadying the cylinder when it split. He was found some five hundred feet away, where he had reached Mach 2 and was still picking up speed when he was stopped by a heart attack.
As the world knows, we face an emerging virus threat in the Wuhan coronavirus (2019-nCoV) outbreak. The problem is, right now there are several important things that we don't know about the situation. The mortality rate, the ease of human-human transmission, the rate of mutation of the virus (and how many strains we might be dealing with – all of these need more clarity. Unfortunately, we've already gone past the MERS outbreak in severity (which until now was the most recent new coronavirus to make the jump into humans). If we're fortunate, though, we'll still have something that will be worrisome, but not as bad as (say) the usual flu numbers (many people don't realize that influenza kills tens of thousands of people in the US each year). The worst case, though, is something like 1918, and we really, really don't need that.
[Ed note: The linked story is by Derek Lowe who writes a "commentary on drug discovery and the pharma industry". He is perhaps best known for his "Things I Won't Work With" blog entries which are as hilarious as they are... eye opening. I have found him to be a no-nonsense writer who "tells things as they are", holding no punches. The whole story is worth reading as he clearly explains what a coronavirus is, about the current one that reportedly originated in Wuhan, China, what could be done about it, how long that would likely take, and what can be done for those who have already been infected. --martyb]
Previous Stories Referencing Derek Lowe:
Machine Learning Comes to Biochemistry
Ignition! The Funniest, Most Accessible Book on Rocket Science is Being Reissued
Another Failed Alzheimer's Disease Therapy
Marathon Pharmaceuticals is Part of the Problem
Lobbying Results in FDA Approval for Controversial Drug
"Right to Try" New Experimental Medicine and the Value of Experts
Cancer Hazard vs. Risk - Glyphosate
A Terrific Paper on the Problems of Drug Discovery
Things I Won't Work With