Blowing Up Your Lab Mate is a Bad Idea, But It Sure Is Fun

By Josh Bloom — Feb 02, 2016
Nitrogen triiodide is exceedingly cool stuff. The purple solid is very easy to make, but you better keep it wet. Once dry, it's a powerful contact explosive which could theoretically be useful for practical jokes. I know, because I survived after someone played one on me.

Dear Homeland Security guys, Please leave me alone. I am not providing any information that isn't already on YouTube. Nor am I suggesting that anyone try this. Furthermore, not only have I not done it to anyone, but I was the victim back of this horrendous plot, back in the days when chemistry practical jokes were still considered funny. This wasn't just funny. It was hilarious.

There is also some cool chemistry involved, which gives me an excuse to write juvenile nonsense like this. The chemical that blew me up is nitrogen triiodide, and it is not only unique (insanely explosive, triggered by even a light touch, as is obvious from the video below) but is ridiculously easy to make. All you have to do is mix iodine crystals with ammonia, stir it a bit and wait for a little while Then filter off the purple solid that forms and KEEP IT WET. Because if you don't, something bad happens. As I would soon find out.

Here is the reaction to make it:

NH3 + I2 = NI3

And here is the reaction representing what happens to it if you let it dry out:

2NI3 + Anything on earth = N2 + 3I2 + BOOM! + New pair of underwear

The second reaction is best demonstrated by the following video:


So, one morning, I stroll into my lab to find that someone (let's just call him Steve) left me a little surprise from the night before. My lab was mined with nitrogen triiodide. All over the place, as demonstrated by the red Xs.

Screen Shot 2016-02-01 at 3.30.53 PM X = A tiny pile of dry NI3.

So, everything I touched, every place that I stepped, was a small but significant explosion with me at ground zero. I blew up at every turn. The head of the research group, who could hear it quite clearly, was displeased about this. He came in at yelled at me! Like I sabotaged my own lab for the sheer pleasure of blowing myself up every time I turned around?

Screen Shot 2016-02-01 at 4.04.57 PM

A falsely accused chemist. He was not pleased.

Obviously, this could not go unpunished, as demonstrated by the following sequence of events:

1. Obtain a brand new rubber pipet bulb.

Screen Shot 2016-02-01 at 3.52.03 PM

2. Obtain some crushed dry ice. 

Screen Shot 2016-02-01 at 3.58.33 PM

3. Obtain a stainless steel tubing clamp.

Screen Shot 2016-02-01 at 4.10.24 PM

4. Fill bulb with dry ice

5. Place the clamp on the neck of the bulb. Tighten the screw. Then tighten it some more.

6. Hide it under Steve's desk hoping that Steve would return. Then get the hell out of there. He did.

7. As the dry ice becomes CO2 gas, it gets rather large:

 Screen Shot 2016-02-01 at 4.16.01 PM

7. Wait 10 minutes.

8. Observe results. 

Screen Shot 2016-02-01 at 4.18.21 PM

9. Assess the success of the plan: The plan succeeded.

Screen Shot 2016-02-01 at 4.27.39 PM

The chemist formerly known as Steve.

10. Suffer the consequences. Try not to roll around on the floor in hysterical laughter during the acceptance of said consequences.

 Screen Shot 2016-02-01 at 4.23.51 PM

He was bluffing. I did not get fired.

Addendum: Steve is a long-time friend. At the time when the festivities transpired we were post-docs together, and later we would work for the same company. After he read this, he told me a story, which was just too good to pass up.

Steve is a couple of atoms short of a periodic table, essentially a high-functioning Charles Manson. So it is not the least bit surprising that one of his former hobbies was tinkering with explosives. His specialty was blowing up enormous quantities of them in the desert near where he lived.

He told me that he once read about some other maniac who decided to use nitrogen triiodide to build a better mousetrap. This device consisted of a circle of dry NI3 with a piece of cheese in the middle of the circle. 

It worked.

Screen Shot 2016-02-02 at 1.49.39 PM 


Josh Bloom

Director of Chemical and Pharmaceutical Science

Dr. Josh Bloom, the Director of Chemical and Pharmaceutical Science, comes from the world of drug discovery, where he did research for more than 20 years. He holds a Ph.D. in chemistry.

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