Fluorine: The Element From Hell

By Josh Bloom — Feb 14, 2016
Fluorine is the most reactive element of all. Most chemists will never use, or even see it. But, there are a few people with more than a few screws loose that will demonstrate how reactive it really is. You won't believe it.
Be. Afraid. Free image: Vector Portal

If I start this thing off with the periodic table, even my own mother won't read it, and she is one of the few people on Earth who can stand me. So, I altered the table enough to make it more interesting. Note the fine artwork.




Periodic Table.jpeg

Josh's Psycho Periodic Table

It should be clear that some elements are far more interesting than others. Every chemist loves the "badass" elements. Because they blow up when you chuck them into water. Here (Watch the whole 30 seconds!): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sNdijknRxfU Pretty cool, huh? As bad as cesium is, there is one element that is even worse: fluorine. It is the most reactive of all the elements, and most chemists will never see it, let alone use it. The precautions you must take just to handle the stuff are "mildly alarming." There is a publication, which, ironically (I don't think they were kidding) is called "Working With HF [hydrofluoric acid] And Fluorine Safely." You go first.

  • It reacts with virtually every element except Ar, He, and Ne.
  • It is lethal at very low levels.
  • Fire fighting The only practical way to extinguish a fluorine fire is to shut off the source of fluorine.
  • Water and CO2 fire extinguishers only add fuel to fire.
  • F2 is one of the most hazardous substances found in MSTD* laboratories.

* Materials Science and Technology Division, Oak Ridge National Laboratory  If that doesn't make you feel safe enough, another booklet tells you how to protect yourself from it. Doesn't sound all that bad:

  • Self-contained breathing apparatus with a full face piece
  • Operated in the pressure demand mode or other positive pressure mode.

There is a fascinating (and entertaining) piece on the LateralScience website, which describes what happened to some of the early chemistry pioneers who first isolated molecular fluorine (1). You just have to love the title "Fluorine the Gas of Lucifer." There is a message here. It is not subtle: "This most reactive of the elements proved to be exceedingly difficult and dangerous to isolate. Fluorine chemists who were mauled by the tiger: Humphrey Davy of England: poisoned, recovered. George and Thomas Knox of Ireland: both poisoned, one bedridden 3 years, recovered. P. Louyet of Belgium: poisoned, died. Jerome Nickels of Nancy, France: poisoned, died. George Gore of England: fluorine / hydrogen explosion, narrowly escaped injury. Henri Moissan of France: poisoned several times, success, but shortened lifespan." So, how bad is fluorine? See for yourself what some certified lunatics tried: This guy burned a brick with it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wqLnSkLalOE

This guy (who looks like he just arrived from Pluto) sprays it on charcoal: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-_7axQ7YAnE.

And, for reasons that only he can know, this knucklehead decided to try it out on a raw chicken: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M5_9z1TxUfg Although he may be onto something: Screen Shot 2016-02-11 at 2.22.44 PM (1) Note: Fluorine is NOT fluoride, just like chlorine, a WWI chemical weapon is not chloride (salt). Although fluoride is toxic at doses that are WAY higher than what is found in drinking water (apologies to fluoride conspiracy loonies) fluorine makes it seem like a baby rattle. It is so reactive that it exists nowhere on earth, with the exception of minuscule traces that are trapped in a mineral called antozonite.


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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