Jul 31, 2013

The Chemistry Lab Casualty

Hydrogen Sulfide smells like rotten eggs. Sulfur Dioxide has a smell of burning Sulfur. Ammonia has a pungent smell. Well, at least that's what the books say. For as long as I can remember, I have had a really hard time describing smells like these. How was I supposed to detect Sulfur Dioxide by smelling it if I had no idea how burning sulfur smelt like?

Courtesy: mrsermann.wikispaces.com
Our Chemistry teacher was really wonderful in this regard (and in so many other ways too). She would tell us that the only way of getting to know these smells was to actually smell known compounds (of course, under proper supervision). She had intensified that innate curiosity in each and every one of us which had somehow gotten buried deep down. She would tell us that the only way to learn in the Chemistry lab was to ask questions- the more the merrier.

The most important part of the Chemistry practicals those days (and perhaps even now) was salt analysis. We would be given an unknown salt (mostly white in color, although occasionally the color would give away the identity of the salt) with the aim of identifying the cation and the anion in it. The standard procedure was a careful step-by-step process to determine each of the ions in the salt.

Although it wasn't that difficult, we still performed the analysis a lot in the name of practice. Deep down, we immensely enjoyed those tests. With all the changing colors and smells, who wouldn't?

It was one such day. We had a free period just after the Chemistry practicals and the lab was empty. Naturally, we continued. The only difference that day was that the lab assistant was absent.

I had taken a pinch of Ammonium Nitrate. A confirmatory test for the nitrate ion is the Brown Ring test. Some amount of Iron Sulfate is added to the solution, and concentrated Sulfuric acid is added slowly to the solution. A brown ring appears at the junction of the two layers.

I had failed to get the results the whole day. I was frustrated. Perhaps I was not adding the acid properly. Or maybe, the concentrated label on the acid was wrong or old. I decided to do something stupid. I took the bigger labelled bottle of concentrated sulfuric acid on my right hand, with the test tube on my left, the mouth pointing away from me. I knew I would get the result for sure that time!

Then came the stupid part. It is possible that the big acid bottle was heavy and I couldn't control the flow of the acid coming out of it. A relative high amount of acid poured down the test tube, and I could just watch, helpless.

The mouth of the test tube was pointed away from me, but the lower part was just a few inches from my skin. Dilution of an acid is an exothermic process and the heat of the reaction made the test tube shatter, spilling the concentrated acid on my arm. I felt a sharp sensation on my hands and more importantly, my face too.

All the precautions we had read about in Chemistry practical books ever since we were kids flashed through my mind. Running water, running water- that's what I needed. By that time, I could feel the burning sensation. Meanwhile, DevD's expression was worth a million dollars. A third person would rather feel that the acid was burning him alive. (On a side note, it's just that he is really sensitive.)

I opened the tap, took off my specs and started washing my face. Was I going to get a permanent mark there? I was so preoccupied with my precious face that it took me a few seconds to get back to the actual affected area, the underside of my left arm. (Much later, I realized that the sharp sensation on my face was probably due to a small piece of the test tube hitting it rather than the acid.)

Those few seconds were precious, and that affected area had already turned red. Although I thought of applying some weak base, but gave it up. Maybe, just maybe, my subconscious mind wanted a scar!

And I did get a scar. Sort of. It resembled the flow of three drops of fluid on my arm and had a distinct acid burn color. It was a matter of pride for me. Although I hadn't defeated a grizzly bear with my bare hands, it still was an achievement for me.

It's been almost four years since that exciting day. Not even a faint mark remains now and looking at my arm seems like it never happened. It just proves that I am not as good in Chemistry as I was once upon a time!


This post is written for the 'Smelly to Smiley' contest by Indiblogger and Ambi Pur India. For more, visit their Facebook page.

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