Gut Rumbles

April 22, 2008

Acid thoughts

Originally published April 12, 2003

I got the nickname "Acidman" when was General Foreman over the 900-ton per day sulfuric acid plant where I worked from 1987 until 1992. That place never frightened me, although I learned to have a healthy respect for molten sulfur, SO2 and SO3 gas, and all forms of sulfuric acid.

I once walked up on a small rattlesnake at the acid plant one day, and the little shit coiled up and struck at me. He was acting like a real badass, so I walked inside the control room, grabbed a 500-ml bottle of 98% acid, went back outside and doused him with it. Nothing happened. The acid didn't bother the snake at all. Its skin was dry enough that the acid had no moisture to react with.

So, I picked up a water hose and doused the snake with some good old H2O. A cloud of steam erupted and the snake straightened out like a walking stick, cooked to a crisp. We were hell on animals back there.

We also had the largest army of bald-headed, blind rats in the southeast around the old scale house, where we weighed the acid trucks that we loaded. That building was constructed in 1954, and it had seen better days. There was a baseball-sized hole in one corner of the floor, and marsh rats would enter and exit as they pleased through it to raid operators' lunch boxes. I once went in the scale house and discovered a rat bigger than most house cats and with nuts the size of golf balls sitting on the desk and grinning at me as if he worked there.

One of the guys got pissed one day and hung a chicken bone from a string over the hole and armed himself with several bottles of acid. The rats would come out of the hole, grab the chicken bone and wrestle with it until he poured 98% sulfuric acid on their heads. They became bald-headed and blind after that, and when they emerged from underneath the scale house to run in blind circles out in the open, we killed them with pipe-clubs.

Yeah, PETA. I clubbed several myself.

Here's some acid trivia for you:

* It takes acid to make acid. If you burn molten sulfur, it reacts with the combustion air to form SO2 gas. Run that through a catalyst bed and the SO2 reacts with the remaining oxygen to form SO3 gas. Run that gas stream through a cascade of 98% acid and the SO3 grabs the 2% moisture in the acid stream and forms H2SO4, which is sulfuric acid. If you scrub well, nitrogen is the waste gas leaving the stack. (our atmosphere is 78% nitrogen, 20.9% oxygen and 1.1% trace gases, of which that global-warming monster CO2 is .03%.)

* We sell acid to paper mills, battery manufacturers and all the other likely suspects. But we also sell to Nutrasweet and Anheiser-Busch.

* You can make sulfuric acid that is MORE THAN 100% concentration. It's called "oleum," it fumes on contact with air, and it can be MORE than 100% acid. Go figure.

* 98% sulfuric acid is less corrosive to metal than 20% sulfuric acid is. Remember my snake story.

* 98% sulfuric acid freezes at +46 degrees F. Lower the concentration to 93% and the freezing temperature drops to -30 degrees F. Lower the concentration further, to 77% and the acid freezes at +10 degrees F. I've read that this phenomenon is caused by hydroxyl ions, but I call it "Pure Fucking Magic."

* If you have dry hands, you can pour 98% acid into your palm and not get burned. DO NOT pour it on the back of your hand, ever. That's a totally different skin surface. Refer again to my snake story.

* Let a black person get hit with 98% acid and he turns pink everywhere he is hit. We ARE all alike under the skin. I've seen proof.

* The worst injury I ever saw in 23 years of work in a chemical plant (other than the time a contractor fell through the roof and landed on concete 100' below-- yeah, that fall killed him. But he was a contractor. He doesn't count.) was sulfuric acid burns to two mechanics who violated every line-breaking rule we have and got covered up with 98% acid. One of those guys still works at the plant and still has horrible scars from that accident. He can't stand direct sunshine anymore, either. See him with his shirt off and you'll cringe.

* That accident DID NOT happen at the acid plant under my watch. It happened inside the plant where I pumped the acid to end-users. I never got anybody burned (other than the gnat bites you feel that tell you there's a leak somewhere) the entire time I ran the place.

* I loved that job. I had a chance to return two years ago, but I turned it down. I'm a white-end guy now, and too accustomed to farting dust to go back to making acid. You don't make pigment at the acid plant. I make pigment where I am now. If I don't eat and breathe about 2.2 pounds of TiO2 dust every day at work anymore, I might go into withdrawal. To me, it's like SPICE on Dune. I gotta have it.

If you have any questions about sulfuric acid, feel free to ask. Acidman probably knows the answer.

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