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View Full Version : Chemicals lying around in a chemistry research lab



Zashi
04-04-2013, 05:04 PM
Hey, so my teenage MC is in a chemistry research lab when he's definitely not supposed to be, and is running away from two people (also his peers, but they don't know it's him because he's kind of covering his face) and trying to hinder them by throwing whatever is around in their path. I wouldn't want anything too dangerous/corrosive/whatever for the first part, since the focus is on the chase and the two pursuers dodge everything easily because of their parkour experience. (There's no one else in the facility btw, they're all at some kind of compulsory meeting. Even the security guards.)

However, he ends up getting cornered and retreats into a grid of tables covered with sciency/chemistry stuff (using pictures from here (http://www.chem.ox.ac.uk/oxfordtour/crl/#) as reference so I don't look like a complete idiot). One of the pursuers says something threatening and he panics, grabs a bottle/flask/whatever of something and throws it at them. What I need is a chemical that would plausibly be lying around that acts as some kind of non-lethal incapacitator. I tried researching what pepper spray is made of, in case there was some kind of core chemical, but it turns out it's literally made of peppers (ha, of course) just diluted in water, which is a bit implausible to just be hanging around in a science lab. Ideally it would hurt, but have no lasting effects after a day or so. And not be so potent that it would affect my MC too, who would be about 3 metres away from where it hits and may have to go even closer in order to get away. He is wearing a scarf over his nose and mouth though, so that might help if damage is done via inhalation.

Also any other advice re chemistry research labs and how not to look like a clueless idiot regarding them would be appreciated. ^_^

mirandashell
04-04-2013, 06:40 PM
Hmm.... should there be any chemicals 'lying around' in a chem lab. Shouldn't they be in cupboards?

waylander
04-04-2013, 06:50 PM
Professional chemist here
2N HCl could well be in bench bottle and a wash of that in the face would distract most people fairly well, especially in the eyes

(only flammables go into the fireproof cupboards)

Torgo
04-04-2013, 06:59 PM
Would 2N HCl in the eyes be something that you could shrug off with no lasting effects, though?

waylander
04-04-2013, 07:12 PM
If you washed out your eyes with water immediately

Zashi
04-04-2013, 07:18 PM
How immediately is "immediately"? Because these aren't chemistry students, while I'm sure they'd figure out that they should wash their eyes their first instinct would more likely just be "argh pain pain clutch eyeballs".

I'd also be down with gases if there's a gas that would have an effect as described.

waylander
04-04-2013, 07:49 PM
There could be gas cylinders e.g. Chlorine, with a short hose attached. Your MC would need to open a couple of valves and he would have to be pretty close to his assailants for it to be effective.

ECathers
04-04-2013, 07:49 PM
Chloroform?

According to Wikipedia:

Chloroform is a common solvent (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solvent) in the laboratory because it is relatively unreactive, miscible with most organic liquids, and conveniently volatile.[14] (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chloroform#cite_note-14) Chloroform is used as a solvent in the pharmaceutical (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pharmaceutical) industry and for producing dyes (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dye) and pesticides (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pesticide). Chloroform is an effective solvent for alkaloids (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alkaloid) in their base form and thus plant material is commonly extracted with chloroform for pharmaceutical processing. For example, it is used in commerce to extract morphine (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Morphine) from poppies (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Poppy) and scopolamine (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scopolamine) from Datura (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Datura) plants.
It can be used to bond pieces of acrylic glass (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Poly%28methyl_methacrylate%29) (also known under the trade names Perspex and Plexiglas).
A solvent of phenol, chloroform, and isoamyl alcohol in a 25:24:1 ratio is used to dissolve non-nucleic acid biomolecules in DNA and RNA extractions.
Chloroform containing deuterium (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deuterium) (heavy hydrogen), CDCl3 (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/CDCl3), is a common solvent used in NMR spectroscopy (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/NMR_spectroscopy).

Kitty Pryde
04-04-2013, 08:09 PM
If you could smash a big previously sealed bottle of butyric acid at someone's feet and hold your breath as you run away, that would probably work. It smells very very very strongly of barf. I think the guy in Zodiac by Neal Stephenson did that. It's not harmful, just nasty. A few drops of it would be enough to send most people running.

Torgo
04-04-2013, 08:17 PM
If you could smash a big previously sealed bottle of butyric acid at someone's feet and hold your breath as you run away, that would probably work. It smells very very very strongly of barf. I think the guy in Zodiac by Neal Stephenson did that. It's not harmful, just nasty. A few drops of it would be enough to send most people running.

The guy in Zodiac used Putrescine (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Putrescine), if I remember correctly, which if Stephenson's description can be trusted is just as horrid.

Kitty Pryde
04-04-2013, 08:28 PM
The guy in Zodiac used Putrescine (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Putrescine), if I remember correctly, which if Stephenson's description can be trusted is just as horrid.

You are totally right. Well, there's two horrifically smelly chemicals for you. I will throw in cadaverine for funsies. As to which is most likely to be lying around a chem lab, I'm not sure!

Dave Hardy
04-04-2013, 08:34 PM
A buddy of mine worked in a chemistry lab that tested food products (for humans and animals, it was a commercial deal, not pure research). And yes, peppers were part of the job. They were constantly getting the pepper juice on them and looked for ways to flush it out. Turns out that anything that could actually degrade the molecules that cause the irritation would be worse than the pepper.

So peppers don't seem all that implausible to me.

One thing they used in extractions was ether. I'm not sure how it was stored, but it had to be used under a hood.

WriterTrek
04-04-2013, 08:42 PM
Another professional chemist here.

Yes, there will almost always be chemicals lying around in a research lab. I wouldn't be surprised to see a diluted version of HCl sitting around, or a few other dangerous solvents depending on the research being done, but what immediately came to mind was chloroform.

If you breathe in a large whiff of chloroform you will get lightheaded for a few seconds. Have him toss/spill a bunch of it (and I used to have a 4-Liter container, though it comes in smaller sizes, check Aldrich for size/bottle descriptions). The pursuers can stop, sway for a second, shake their heads, stumble away from the spill, and then regain their senses while the protagonist scurries away.

Just make sure that it's arranged so that the protag doesn't get much of a whiff of it himself. It also means that your protag doesn't have to actually hit them with the chemical -- just get it close enough to them.

Experience? Heh. An undergrad spilled a bunch of chloroform one time and I got a whiff of it. I swayed, shook my head, and shortly thereafter was fine (chloroform evaporates fairly quickly) -- but it did throw me off for a second.

shaldna
04-05-2013, 03:33 PM
When I worked in a lab we had to lock EVERYTHING away - it's best practice. I would say that, in a school situation, that should certainly be the case - you know what kids are like, and anything left out can and will be lifted.

waylander
04-05-2013, 03:35 PM
The OP said it is a research lab, not a school lab

Zashi
04-05-2013, 06:46 PM
Okay so far choloroform seems to be the most promising, but if there's any other chemical that could perhaps be a either a bit more painful or long-lasting I'd like to know about it. It can be pretty obscure, considering the lab is supposed to be for "authorised personnel only" they wouldn't expect someone to be carelessly throwing down bottles.

Zashi
04-06-2013, 03:44 PM
Another professional chemist here.

Yes, there will almost always be chemicals lying around in a research lab. I wouldn't be surprised to see a diluted version of HCl sitting around, or a few other dangerous solvents depending on the research being done, but what immediately came to mind was chloroform.

If you breathe in a large whiff of chloroform you will get lightheaded for a few seconds. Have him toss/spill a bunch of it (and I used to have a 4-Liter container, though it comes in smaller sizes, check Aldrich for size/bottle descriptions). The pursuers can stop, sway for a second, shake their heads, stumble away from the spill, and then regain their senses while the protagonist scurries away.

Just make sure that it's arranged so that the protag doesn't get much of a whiff of it himself. It also means that your protag doesn't have to actually hit them with the chemical -- just get it close enough to them.

Experience? Heh. An undergrad spilled a bunch of chloroform one time and I got a whiff of it. I swayed, shook my head, and shortly thereafter was fine (chloroform evaporates fairly quickly) -- but it did throw me off for a second.

Okay since no other incapacitiating chemicals seem forthcoming, chloroform it is. I read the wikipedia article on it, and some thread from another forum, but I still have a few questions. WriterTrek, you said all it did was make you dizzy/sway, whereas I've read that enough can make you pass out. Is that only if you're being forced to breathe a choloroform-soaked cloth? Otherwise would disorientation/swaying be the biggest effect? Would this chain of events seem over-dramatic/implausible:
>Throws large bottle of chloroform on ground in front of them
>It smashes, chloroform goes everwhere (or at least it covers a bit of floor area)
>Fumes rise, pursuers catch a whiff, sway, collapse but still conscious, seeing stars
>MC escapes

What would your physical reaction other than swaying be? Would you feel the need to cough, clutch your chest, what? This is when you're not expecting it, and don't know what you're breathing. I hear it smells sickly sweet, so maybe you would try to not breathe as deeply?

Ah, also this is for a graphic novel, so if there's any interesting visual descriptors you can think of, that would be helpful. I don't suppose chloroform vapor is visible in any way? Does it distort the air like a heat wave? *hopeful*

WriterTrek
04-06-2013, 08:44 PM
Breathing enough of it can make you pass out, yes, definitely.

I'm going to guess that if they collapse they'll be collapsing in the spilled chloroform, which is going to knock them out.

If you want it to be a bit more damaging have them stagger away but fall down and hit their heads on the floor/lab-bench maybe?

I think that would work, but I'm not 100% sure. The issue being that while I am familiar with getting a whiff of chloroform, and I know that it can knock you out, my primary experience with it regards it's chemical properties (not it's effect on people).

You can also look up things like diethyl ether, acetone, 0.1 M HCl, and see if any of those will work for you. You're somewhat limited by wanting something that will be painful/harmful while not actually causing any permanent damage.

There might also be some potential for spraying them with water (a lot of times there are hoses attached to the sinks) and then tossing some kind of drying agent at them, but not sure how effective that would be.

Things like iron chloride might get hot/corrosive enough, when encountering pure water, to burn them. But that might be permanent.


What would your physical reaction other than swaying be? Would you feel the need to cough, clutch your chest, what? This is when you're not expecting it, and don't know what you're breathing. I hear it smells sickly sweet, so maybe you would try to not breathe as deeply?I felt light-headed, fuzzy, like I was about to pass out. I didn't feel the need to cough or clutch my chest, more like shake my head trying to clear it (cliche, but literally I think I did it).

It does have a distinctive smell, so yeah, after one whiff you're likely to hold your breath if possible.


Ah, also this is for a graphic novel, so if there's any interesting visual descriptors you can think of, that would be helpful. I don't suppose chloroform vapor is visible in any way? Does it distort the air like a heat wave? *hopeful* In general it's clear, so you can't see it. It may distort the air a little but I can't vouch for that.

jaksen
04-07-2013, 05:19 AM
I just want to say you can find some pretty dicey stuff in a high school, or even middle school lab. And the security - sometimes just a regular door with a regular key, which might be left open when the room is empty, or there isn't a class going on. I was a science teacher for 30+ years and I was often appalled at the lack of ordinary common sense, forget security.

And yes, we kept potent stuff in there, which if handled and secured properly, was very safe. But when it wasn't...

I was always surprised we had so few accidents - in fact in my many years, not one student got hurt other than dropping a beaker or test tube and getting cut. (Or burning their hand on a hot plate.)

In the only serious accident we ever had, I was the one injured.

Anyhow, I would think in an industrial chem lab, or even a college or research one, there would be more security, locks, and every chemical would have to be accounted for on some type of sign up sheet, schedule or other protocol.

Not so in many schools.

waylander
04-07-2013, 03:57 PM
Anyhow, I would think in an industrial chem lab, or even a college or research one, there would be more security, locks, and every chemical would have to be accounted for on some type of sign up sheet, schedule or other protocol.

Not so in many schools.

Not so in most labs. The only things we have to sign for are some of the obviously dangerous chemicals such as cyanides. Most of the rest are around in large quantity and when it runs low you just order more.

shaldna
04-08-2013, 01:09 AM
Breathing enough of it can make you pass out, yes, definitely.

I'm going to guess that if they collapse they'll be collapsing in the spilled chloroform, which is going to knock them out.

I'll chime in here and say that's it dangerous stuff. I learned the hard way that you don't double check which beaker you put which chemical into by sniffing it.

Also, when you accidently pour chloroform down a sink - DON'T try to wash it away with hot water.

JayMan
04-09-2013, 05:47 AM
Liquid nitrogen.

It's not the most common thing to find in a chemistry or biology lab, but it's also not that uncommon. It won't be stored in a small beaker or bottle on a desk, rather it'll be in a special, possibly wheeled container (like these: http://imgur.com/M4Q90Sg).

It'll probably be labeled "liquid nitrogen," and the cap is very easily removed. It can be tilted and spilled. Small amounts of liquid nitrogen, like drops, won't damage skin, as the substance evaporates on contact. Being splashed with a large amount of it, however, will cause extremely painful frostbite-like damage to the skin, and it happens very quickly--maybe a second or two. At a temperature of less than -300 degrees Fahrenheit, it doesn't take much exposure time to do damage. It's also not very pleasant to get in your clothes.

Anyway, you could have just enough of the stuff splash the pursuers to cause them extreme pain and leave some minor scars (say, on their hands/fingers), but not so much that it kills or permanently disfigures them in some horrible way.

jaksen
04-09-2013, 10:16 PM
Not so in most labs. The only things we have to sign for are some of the obviously dangerous chemicals such as cyanides. Most of the rest are around in large quantity and when it runs low you just order more.

Then stuff is even easier to get than I realize.

Also, in high schools, and even some middle schools, students would be 'trusted' to clean glassware or prepare labs and lab materials. I never did this as my students were far too young, but it was common at the high school and I am sure many a student pocketed a little bottle or vial of ... whatever.

I had only one major accident. It happened as I was preparing some very diluted HCl, which we used in several experiments. Anyhow, I was in my classroom alone, safety hood on and I felt funny then leaned into the hood - big mistake - and looked up. The fan (in the hood) had been blocked by a piece of wood. I got a lungful of vapor and barely made it into the hall and into the science teacher's room next to mine.

Hospital. Burned throat, back of my tongue. Hideous.

But I had a safety story to tell the next ten years of students, before I retired.

McMich
04-10-2013, 05:01 AM
I'd say chloroform- we have it sitting out any time we are using it (though we use it in a hood, the bottle sits out) You would need a large quantity to knock them out. Maybe they slip on the other stuff that was thrown at them as they chased your MC and that way they are closer to the liquid as the bottle breaks on the floor.

I've never seen anyone pass out from chloroform. Best we had was an undergrad drop a 1L bottle and only get a little woozy before some told him to move away from it.

(I'm a molecular biologist)