A Product of Nitrogen and Iodine

A nitrogen triiodide explosion isn’t quite this colorful, but it’s still a magnificent sight.

This is a transcript of a lightning talk delivered at Mason Hartman’s Chapel on September 13, 2019. The theme of the night was, “Don’t Try This at Home.”

I’m here today to tell you about the folly of my youth. About brash decisions and narrowly-skirted consequences. And about a chemistry experiment you should never try at home.

The year is 2001. I’m in the ninth grade. We’re entering the dog days of summer, the closing weeks of the school year in north Alabama. I’m a compulsive dabbler, always have been. By this season of my life, I’ve already experimented with chemistry, electronics, and computers, settling on the latter as my desired career path. That worked out pretty well.

Like many youths who got access to the Internet before the rise of social media, I spent a lot of time reading plain text documents on everything from hacking, to drugs, to conspiracy theories, and riffing on the ideas therein with other disaffected kids on IRC. The Anarchist Cookbook was more of a bible to me than The Bible, and I went to a Presbyterian church school.

But although I might have had aspirations to build Drano bombs and potato cannons and synthesize psychedelics from Hawaiian rosewood seeds of dubious provenance, I didn’t have ready access to the materials called for by most of the illicit recipes I came across.

Until one day, I noticed that the door to the supply closet in the chemistry lab was ajar. Like many such rooms across the country, this closet was home to multiple generations of things deemed too dangerous to use in the modern, sterile chemistry curriculum. Among the Erlenmeyer flasks and Bunsen burners, I noticed a small cache of bulk chemicals with yellowing labels. And there, calling to me like a siren was a 100g bottle of pure iodine crystals.

Secure in the knowledge that it would never be used to its highest and best purpose, I secreted this relic of a more civilized age in which men were men and boys routinely made gunpowder out of saltpeter and charcoal away — in my backpack.

See, crystalline iodine was the chief ingredient in a very interesting substance I’d always wanted to make. Nitrogen triiodide is one of the most sensitive contact explosives known to man. It will explode, violently, at the touch a feather, a passing gust of wind, even a small change in atmospheric pressure. It’s a cantankerous chemical, always ready to blow. As a moody teen, I felt a kinship.

The synthesis is easy enough. I innocently asked my mom to obtain some ammonia from the grocery store. Household ammonia is about 3–4% NO3 by volume, but as long as it’s not the kind with detergent, it does the trick.

Proceed as follows: crush several grams of iodine into as fine a powder as you can manage. Place the iodine powder in a flask with enough ammonia to cover, and mix until dissolution stops. Filter the solution and collect the small black crystals on filter paper. Let dry.

Fifteen year-old me was using a bathroom as a makeshift chemistry lab, so I had little in the way of protective equipment. I just, sort of, let it sit there. And then I went to bed. It was Friday night.

Early on Saturday morning, my dad roused me from sleep. Unbeknownst to me, I had successfully synthesized a critical mass of nitrogen triiodide which, during the night, had collapsed under its own weight and exploded violently. That would have been bad enough, but it turns out that in addition to producing a lovely purple plume upon exploding, nitrogen triiodide also produces iodine vapor that will stain any nearby surface. Turns out, it’s especially fond of white paint, tile, and porcelain.

Witnessing the brown-splotched Superfund site I had inadvertently turned my bathroom into, I did what any moody and likely depressed teen would: I went back to bed and ignored the problem, certain that there would be plenty of time in the days to come to scrub every surface within the blast radius with bleach and a toothbrush.

But lo and behold: when I woke up a few hours later to survey the mess again, it seemed as if the situation had improved itself significantly. See, it so happens that iodine will spontaneously sublimate, turning from a solid into a gas, much like dry ice. Sure enough, over the course of the day, the brownish-orange patches that coated the walls and floor of my bathroom magically returned to a near-pristine state. Actually, it was still the bathroom of an adolescent male, but it was much improved.

One would think that I’d learn my lesson, but I was bothered by the fact that I hadn’t gotten to witness the magnificent explosion myself, which felt…unfair. So, a week or two later, I ran the same experiment, careful to do it in the garage this time, away from any stainable surfaces.

And that is how, at my sixteenth birthday party, I came to demonstrate an incredibly potent explosive, to the shock and amazement of my high school peers.

However, let me be clear: You should definitely never try this at home.

Fellow human. Software engineer. Sometime writer.