Gut Rumbles

April 12, 2003

acid thoughts

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.


Now that's a cool post! Fascinating stuff.

Posted by: Jay Solo on April 12, 2003 12:56 PM

"two mechanics who violated every line-breaking rule we have"

So I take it brains isn't something either one of them were endowed with. :)

Posted by: tk73 on April 12, 2003 12:57 PM

Fascinating indeed. Thanks!

Posted by: dragonfly jenny on April 12, 2003 01:17 PM

I suppose you could say that , TK73. It was a hot summer day. Full Acid gear will make you sweat. Usually, there's no residue in that line.

They decided to break the line without wearing the protective gear. Too hot and unnecessary besides.

That time, the line was full of acid, and they both got covered up and TERRIBLY burned. They were running, screaming, with their clothes and skin melting off of them while other people had to physically tackle them and get water on 'em.

When you have that much acid on you and somebody applies water, you cook from a thermal burn just like that snake did. But the guys who saved them had no other choice.

To this day, I ALWAYS carry paper towels in my back pocket at work. I'm an end-user of acid now, but I may get hit by a leak every now and then. I know to wipe it first, THEN wash it.

My supervisors really like having me around when we have acid work to do. That crap scares the shit out of them. It's routine to me. I've seen a lot and I know a lot.

That's why I NEVER got anybody hurt.

Posted by: Acidman on April 12, 2003 01:20 PM

Uh. charming. A real gore-fest. Speaking of.... sate yourselves with these....

Have fun!

Posted by: Joni on April 12, 2003 03:08 PM

I wonder if vinegar would work in the case of acid? Apparently (according to Fight Club) it neutralizes lye burns.

Posted by: Sam on April 12, 2003 04:06 PM

No. Vinegar is an acid. Lye is a base. The two neutralize each other. Baking soda is a base, as is Club Soda. Club Soda will neutralize an acid, but not before the H20/H2SO4 thermal reaction takes place.

I work with a lot of copper mines where Sulfuric acid is used in the solvent extraction process - spray a weak solution onto the rock, and it extracts copper in solution that can be electrically plated out. Very efficient. But it uses a tremendous amount of acid, which is produced as a byproduct of the other method of copper production, smelting.

One vendor working on an acid line (thickwalled plastic pipe, about 14" in diameter) was killed when the pipe ruptured - while he was under it.

It took him a few minutes to die, and when they could finally recover him, there wasn't much left to bury.

I respect the stuff, and would rather not be around it.

Posted by: Kevin Baker on April 12, 2003 04:33 PM

An old Acid Plant story:
Back when I was a new engineer, I was meeting with a plant superintendent in his office. He mentioned that he had written up a couple of production workers for engaging in horseplay in the plant. He said, "They didn't seem to be impressed, so I took 'em into my office and shut the door. They didn't have any idea what I was going to do. I guess they were expecting an ass-chewing. I took off my shirt and let 'em have a look at my back. Twenty years ago I was standing under an acid line when it let go."

Posted by: Ernie G on April 12, 2003 04:35 PM

When I was in the oil patch, we used to use shitloads of a powder based product called caustic soda (sodium hydroxide) in our drilling fluids (AKA mud) to control pH levels.

I hated working around that stuff because if you got it on your skin it would burn you like that (though not always immediately). We always used gloves, safety goggles, face masks and long sleeved coveralls to handle it, but I still got minor skin burns from it occasionally. Nasty stuff that.

I imagine you're intimately familiar with that substance too though, since it's a manufactured compound and used in a wide variety of applications from what I understand.

Hey, that WAS a fascinating post Acidman. Thanks for the education!

Posted by: Marcl on April 12, 2003 04:35 PM

Club Soda will neutralize an acid

I guess thats why Club Soda will remove wine stains from white shirts pretty effectively.

I always had difficulty understanding the base-acid-alkaline ...fascinating though.

Posted by: MarkC on April 12, 2003 05:38 PM

Very interesting indeed.
I would've loved to have seen that snake. You should've varnished it and used it as a walking stick :)

Posted by: Dan F on April 12, 2003 08:08 PM

Club soda won't make a fart in windstorm against 98% sulfuric acid. Soda ash is the only thing I've seen that will neutralize it.

Posted by: Acidman on April 12, 2003 09:33 PM

About the contractor, my Gramma would have said it wasn't the fall that killed him, it was the sudden stop at the end.

This stuff fascinates me. I might've been an engineer if I hadn't done the pilot thing.

Posted by: Larry on April 12, 2003 09:50 PM

Reminds me of stories I could tell when I was doing work as a volunteer EMT. One in particular was when a husband came home late one night from partying and went straight to bed. The loving wife went to the garage and grabbed a jug of sulfuric acid and doused him with it mostly on his face. Of course he came flying out of bed flailing and splashed her with the stuff too. That guys face was not a pretty sight. He definately got the worst of it.

I also witnessed several guys that screwed up around steam jackets and/or steam valves at a beef packing plant. They died a very painfull, lingering, miserable death...

Posted by: DavidB on April 12, 2003 10:06 PM

A couple of years ago I was working at gas plants around Texas and New Mexico and picked up a chuck of Sulfur at one. Can this be dangerous in any way?

Posted by: starhawk on April 12, 2003 11:40 PM

Solid elemental sulfur is not dangerous unless you light it on fire. Or mix it with the proper proportions of charcoal and saltpeter and light it on fire.

Rob, I did not mean to imply that club soda would neutralize 98% sulfuric acid, but it works pretty well if you get splashed with battery acid (wipe first, then dump on the Schweppes.) The stuff I sometimes have to work around is hardly of that concentration, but it will flat eat a pair of blue jeans unless you mix a box of baking soda in the water before you submerge them.

Posted by: Kevin Baker on April 13, 2003 12:27 AM

Cool post. Clinton hating rants are a dime a dozen, but this acid info is unique.

Posted by: Dave on April 13, 2003 12:33 AM

Just don't drop it on your toe. Other than that, it's pretty safe.

Posted by: Ernie G on April 13, 2003 07:42 AM

Get into an acid mist wearing blue jeans and a cotton shirt, then run your clothes through the washing machine. They'll look like you hung them on a clothesline and shot 'em with birdshot. IF they come out in one piece at all.

But you DO NOT wear artificial fabrics around strong acid. Nylon, Dacron, etc. will melt to your skin when hit with acid. Getting THAT off is painful.

Elemental sulfur (which resembles a yellow rock) is harmless. You can put some in an old sock and throw it under your sofa to keep fleas away if you own dogs. You can make it burn with a cigarette and you'll never see a flame unless you look VERY carefully. Get a heavy whiff of that smoke, however, and you'll drop to your knees puking.

I do believe that a certain person in the comments above knows how to make gunpowder.

Posted by: Acidman on April 13, 2003 08:04 AM

Oh, that reminds me, and you're just the person to as:

muriatic acid -- used to clean swimming pools -- we had some laying around our house when I was a kid (yes, we actually had a pool and it was a PITA).... Anyway, my uncle (maybe to scare me into behaving) told me that stuff would rot flesh. But the pool man used it. Hrm.

What is it and how bad is it (compared with sulfuric acid)? And which is the bad-assedest (bad acidest?) acid there is?

(Rob, I'm NOT being facetious here; I truly would like to know.)


Posted by: Joni on April 13, 2003 12:53 PM

When we work in a tankhouse (where they plate the copper out of solution) we wear Tyvek paper suits over our clothes, and we try to wear synthetics under it. The stuff isn't bad enough to melt the synthetics.

The regular site employees have company provided Kevlar coveralls. It seems that Kevlar is the best material for that particular environment - essentially unaffected by the acid.

I'm not sure how bulletproof it is, though.

In the smelter, on the other hand, you are required to wear all cotton clothing. You're working around molten copper, natural gas, and steam. Cotton will burn off. Synthetics will melt into your skin. They show us a safety film every year of a woman who worked in a smelter who was caught in a spill situation. Her clothes caught on fire, but she was wearing jeans and a cotton shirt.

WIth a nylon bra and panties. The scars are very bad.

Posted by: Kevin Baker on April 13, 2003 02:36 PM

Thanks for the reply. I will make sure not to tell my daughter that it burns since knowing her she is likely to try. The gas plant I was at was processing gas with 19% sulfur content. I learned a lot about how dangerous the stiff was. We had to go through an orientation just to be there for 4 days. They pulled enough suphur out of the gas to ship out 10 railcars full every 10 days.

Posted by: starhawk on April 14, 2003 10:53 PM
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