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When handling this chemical, wearing certain kinds of gloves might actually be a danger. Here’s how rocket fuel makes a standard lab safety item go up in flames.
Nitric acid, HNO3, is not something you want on your hands. It burns your fingers and it leaves distinctive yellow stains. Nitric acid is not even something you want on your gloves. Even very dilute solutions kick-start oxidation. It rips electrons away from other materials, and in doing so it produces a little heat. Get a little nitric acid on a latex or nitrile glove and you’ll want to change gloves right away.
Get more concentrated nitric acid on your gloves, or your anything else, and you won’t want to do anything but run for a fire extinguisher. Once nitric acid hits 84% concentration it becomes what’s known as “fuming nitric acid” â€” otherwise known as rocket fuel. It was part of the fuel for German anti-aircraft Wasserfall missiles during World War II. The Soviets used it for the Kosmos-3M, a rocket used to launch payloads into space.
Neither country liked it much, for reasons that should be made clear in this video:
Fuming nitric acid oxidizes nearly anything that’s organic, and in doing so it creates a huge amount of heat very quickly. It ignites nitrile and latex gloves, as well as most organic matter – like clothing. This is an acid that may burn you to death in the literal sense long before it melts your face off.
Nitric acid tears into regular labwear so well, and so subtly, that during a perusal of chemistry boards, I found users who would prefer to work with the more dilute stuff bare-handed than trust the dubious protection of latex or nitrile gloves. (Note, this is not not not the recommended way to do things.) As for the fuming nitric acid, for that you need to switch gloves materials and break out the heavy lab equipment. The fumes burn eyes and lungs, so if you’re close enough for it to set fire to your clothes, you’re already in agony.
Image: Joe Sullivan