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Old 05-18-2017, 08:41 PM   #17
OLChemist
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Join Date: May 2002
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I'm called the Asbestos Chemist.

When I was in grad school, I was on the grad student safety committee. Among other responsibilities, we trained lab assistants in the use of fire extinguishers. The local fire department would send a trainer but we provided the solvents and fire. One year, lighting the fires fell to me.

We did this little exercise on the lawn, in front of the grad student pub. Did I mention, during the first day of freshman orientation. We had a good and vocal audience of grad students on the lam from their labs and slightly alarmed looking parents.

Being August in Houston, it was in the upper 90's with 95%+ relative humidity. We were burning waste acetone in an large evaporating dish. At that temperature, the acetone was evaporating almost as fast as I poured. And fire fighter launched into a long speech right after I filled the dish. I could see the schlieren lines along the heavier-than-air solvent vapor front as it flowed out of the dish and along the table. After a few minutes the vapors began streaming down onto the grass.

I was getting more and more nervous, visualizing a big fire ball along the ground and table top. All I had to light this mess was a piece of Pyrex tubing, into which I was to fit a lit kitchen match. The tubing was no where near as long as I would have liked. And the match didn't fit too well. And our fire fighter friend was just talking and talking, while I was frantically trying to remember the lower flammability limit for acetone.

By the time, the fireman gestured for me to light the solvent, my hands were shaking. I broke a half a dozen matches, before I got the first one lit. Then I extinguished the match trying to get it into the tubing. Next I tried throwing the a couple, only to have them drop rapidly toward acetone and go out. No fire. People started heckling. I tried the tubing again. No joy.

After a week -- OK, two minutes of agony -- I looked up. Our fighter fighter friend was doubled over, fist shoved in his mouth to stifle his laughter. When he saw me looking at him, he took the matches and gracefully flipped on into bowl, which bust into flames.

At the end, he thanked the "Asbestos Chemist" for her "able" assistance. The name stuck.

In '98 I was giving a poster at the national ACS meeting in Boston, when I heard someone on the walkway over the main lobby in Copley Center yelling, "It's the Asbestos Chemist." I looked up to spy a colleague from my grad school days. My postdoc adviser, the other postdoc in the lab, one of our grad students and the undergrad RA were all looking at me. Our research group studied collision vibrational energy partitioning. Research which was funded by the Office of Naval Research and the Air Force because of it's applicability to disguising rocket and jet engine combustion signatures.

I still fail to enjoy the irony.


(Oh, GAK! I should have put yesterday's iced tea in the fridge; it's fermented into really foul near beer.)
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