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2001 Personal Accounts
The Darwin Awards salutes the spirit portrayed in the following personal accounts, submitted by loyal (and sometimes reluctant) readers. Next Prev Random


Real Science
2001 Personal Account

(March 2001, Tennessee) A friend of mine attended a private school in Nashville, and one of his chemistry teachers may well have become a Darwin winner by now. She told the class one day that salt is made in factories, to the disbelief of most of the kids who knew that salt is mined as a natural mineral. My friend Andy called her on it, yet still she insisted she had seen the process. Teachers hate to be corrected. She sarcastically asked him if he thought salt "came out of the ground."

Andy asked if she could provide a practical demonstration, but no sodium was available. So he suggested that creating another salt, such as potassium bromide, would be close enough. She sent him to fetch elemental potassium and bromine from the chemistry lab. He also took the liberty of turning off the electricity and gas supply to her work station, just in case, then returned to the classroom with a plastic tub, a bottle of bromine, rubber gloves, tongs, and a half-pound block of potassium.

Andy placed the tub in the sink, poured in the bromine, and handed the other items to the teacher. He retreated to the door while the teacher encouraged the other students to move closer. Having some idea of what might happen, none of them did.

Andy encouraged his teacher to exercise caution, and just scrape a few flakes of the potassium into the bromine. But she didn't heed his warning. " I want to make enough for everyone to take some home with them." As he ducked around the doorway, she dropped the entire block of potassium into the bromine, which immediately exploded.

When the dust cleared, the workstation was a pile of splinters and the teacher had a broken arm. When the headmaster interrogated them together a few days later, they corroborated each others' versions of the story. All the headmaster could do was shake his head in disbelief.

So far as I know, this is a true story. My friend tells very good stories, and has had enough odd things happen in his life that I believe this one. © 1994 - 2020
Submitted by: J.F.

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Lane Bevis says, "The potassium bromide story is hard to believe. A labratory tub full of bromine, in itself, would release toxic amounts of bromine gas. Maybe it was done under a fume hood. However a fume hood would have been no use when the explosion blew all that bromine into the room. Elemental bromine combines with water to form hydrobromic acid. The gas would combine with the water in eyes, nose, mouth, and lungs to cause an extremly painful death for everyone present. Chlorine gas, a similar substance, was used in World War I as a poison.

"Potasium liquifies just a little above body temprature and, on a humid day, will generate enough heat to become totaly liquid. The exploding potasium would have spread droplets of liquid potasium over a fairly large area. This is very caustic -- upon touching the human body it would produce potasium hydroxide. Potasium is so reactive that it is normally stored in oil to prevent reaction with humidity and oxygen. Fires would have broken out throughout the room due to hot potasium reacting with the air and contacting flammable materials such as flesh and clothes.

"The chemistry teacher standing over the sink would have been blasted by potasium, bromine, bromine gas, physical force, and likely would have burst into flames. Any students within fifteen feet would have burns from the potasium. Anyone in the room would suffer external and pulmonary burns from the hydrobromic acid. The bromine gas would also be a hazard to anyone in the hallway and nearby classrooms, as it would spread thoughout the area.

"My guess is that this story pure fiction."

Alison adds, "This is definitely not true. Quite apart from the fact that bromine itself would definitely not be outside of a fume hood, and a highly unlikely chemical for a school lab to have, you wouldn't pour it out in a tub either. I'm a research chemist and I have many, many times performed bromine oxidations. These involve adding both bromine and potassium carbonate to compounds with a carbon double-bonded to an oxygen. I have never seen them explode even slightly (nor would they!) although I work with both substances on a large scale."

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