Being a mad scientist can be a thankless job, but every once in a while you get a chance to shine—literally. I recently had that opportunity when working with a TV show to film one of the most beautiful of all chemical phenomena, the cold luminosity of white phosphorus.
White phosphorus, an uncommon form of the element, is terrible stuff. It's incredibly toxic, catches fire spontaneously in air, and is frequently used in the production of methamphetamine. There are few companies lining up to sell it, and the producers of the television show couldn't find any sane scientist able to get it and do the demonstration for them. I, however, keep some out back behind my house in an army-surplus ammunition case.
With my trusty Icelandic chemist friend Tryggvi at my side calculating the proportions to make sure we'd survive, I mixed up a solution of white phosphorus in toluene (paint thinner) and spread it on my hand (with latex gloves on—I may be mad, but I'm not crazy). The effect was something I'd only read and dreamed about: fleeting, flickering, flowing sheets of cold light all over my hand that rippled as I blew on them.
As the toluene evaporated, the white phosphorus did what its name implies—it phosphoresced, reacting with oxygen from the air to produce a luminous gas fractions of an inch above the surface of my hand. This reaction is not just risky to create, it's also difficult to photograph. We used the best low-light camera available to get it to show up so well.
To the dark-adapted human eye, though, it looks bright, and frankly rather alarming, especially when I took the gloves off and realized that toluene goes through latex. I didn't plan to have white phosphorus on my skin (thankfully, a tiny, harmless amount), but I have now seen my own bare hand flickering green with poison light, and it was every bit as satisfying as I thought it would be.
Warning: Do not try this. Even a tiny amount of white phosphorus can be highly toxic if ingested, and larger amounts burn skin on contact.
pretty cool. can i make white phosphorus from the red phosphorus in matchboxes?? lol
Way to go Popsci. I'm sure the video is immensely interesting. It is a shame that I wasn't able to view it. Instead I got to see MULTIPLE sponsor messages. I hit play, got a sponsor message, the video played for 14 seconds before I got another sponsor message. I only saw 16 seconds of the clip but I was treated to 6 sponsor messages before I was left with the end of the clip and related videos. FAIL all over this page.
not even safety goggles?
what if he tried it without gloves?
"religion is like a prison for the seekers of wisdom"
Hey, thanks for telling us, on May 16th, about the Nova broadcast.....on April 4th.
A family friend who experienced this stuff firsthand, so to speak, had some of this stuff splash on his hand and forearm in one of the little wars we were in but never talk about. By the time my uncle realized that the guy he usually depended on in combat wasn't beside him, running like hell, and got back to him; well, this BADASS MOFO had already realized how bad off he was and had taken his Ka-Bar, and cut off his own arm, just below the elbow. Play with this stuff at your own risk, people. And if you screw up; take your dumbass lumps like a man.
AdamWM, dump your crappy Internet Explorer, get Firefox or Chrome, install Adblock Plus, and quit complaining.
Hmmm not to cast doubt on another's story, but having had to rely on my standard issue Ka-Bar (prior to replacing it with a cold steel), someone wouldn't be taking a limb off with it, particularly below a joint unless they somehow split the bone beforehand because there is no way a Ka-Bar would go through either an ulna or radius unless it's the new lightsaber brand Ka-Bar...
Israel, backed by the United States, has used white phosphorus against Palestinian civilians in Gaza, according to Amnesty International:
To see video of the effects on people, see:
(This is an URL shortened by Google URL Shortener. It will take you to the Google search "white phosphorus palestine," which includes, among other things, a CNN clip on Youtube showing civilians affected by white phosphorus.)
This is an issue that is relevant to all Us citizens, since Israel is backed strongly by the United States. According the most recent State Department of foreign military financing, released in April 2012, "One constant amid change is our steadfast support for Israel. Our FY 2013 request maintains last year’s record funding levels," which is about $3bn by now, closely approaching that amount for many years.
Quote and numbers in this document from the State Dept:
The Jewish people suffered greatly during the Holocaust. This terrible suffering doesn't justify inflicting suffering on the Palestinians. Since Israel can not do this without the help of the US government and the US government will only keep supporting Israel, as it has done in the past, it is the responsibility of the American people to pressure the US government to stop supporting Israel.
(One can find, after a little research on the internet, that the US supported apartheid South Africa until the end. When South Africa lost US support, the apartheid regime ended. I would encourage anyone to investigate this for themselves.)
@abcdeo: You're full of it -- please don't try to spread it around here.
@tundrasea: Please show evidence that what I've written is not true or is misleading. Saying that I'm "full of it" doesn't show this.
You can extract white phosphourus from urine, like the alchemists did 400 years ago.