Member Article - May 2007

The full version of this article is published in the May 2007 issue of METEORITE! magazine.

Etching Meteorites: A Cautionary Tale

Anita Westlake
Article by Anita Westlake
It started out simply enough. Who knew by the time it was all over, a Hazmat team would be scurrying about in my smoke-filled kitchen?

Contrary to how that first paragraph may have sounded, I do know how to etch meteorites without killing myself. But something went terribly wrong that Sunday afternoon; something that proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that I failed college chemistry for a reason.

I had purchased a bottle of nitric acid (70% strength) from my local university. After being questioned as to what exactly I intended to do with the acid, I also purchased a bottle of ethyl alcohol.

My longtime friend, John, came over to etch meteorites with me that Sunday afternoon. We carefully set out a glass dish of full-strength nitric acid, a glass dish of water, and a glass dish of pure ethyl alcohol. Donning safety goggles and rubber gloves, we must have looked like seriously deranged chefs.

Some of the meteorites, especially the Canyon Diablo, were a bit cantankerous and didn't want to etch. We soaked them for a good 20 minutes in the acid before seeing the Widmanstatten pattern finally appear. Using metal tongs, John removed the specimens from the acid, quickly dipped them in water to swish away any remaining acid, and let them soak a bit in the alcohol to remove any traces of water. It was a rather quick process altogether, and we set the newly etched meteorites out to dry on a paper towel.

John went home with his specimens, and I eventually got around to cleaning up the mess we'd left on my kitchen counter. As I was putting away my "etchings," I noticed there were two places on my wooden countertop that had acquired permanently etched "dribble marks." Circles, resembling the trailing bits of the Peekskill meteor in flight, decorated my once pristine counter top.

When John called later that afternoon, I let him know (in a loving and caring way, of course) how his carelessness had defaced my counter. After accepting his sincere apologies, I proceeded to finish putting away the supplies.

Unfortunately, the nitric acid bottle looked quite a bit like the ethyl alcohol bottle, and both were clear liquids. And here is where the trouble began.

Having been brought up with an extremely frugal, bordering on obsessive father, I quite naturally decided to pour the used alcohol (which seemed none the worse for wear) back into the alcohol bottle for later use. Using a glass-measuring cup, I poured the alcohol into the nitric acid bottle. As I began to pour, I realized I had just done a VERY BAD THING. I stopped after about two tablespoons of alcohol had mingled with the nitric acid. I put down the measuring cup and ran about ten feet away, and peered out from the side of the refrigerator.

A gentle wisp of whitish-gray smoke slowly unfurled from the top of the bottle. I watched from a safe distance as the soft tendrils of smoke slowly danced and twisted from the neck of the nitric acid bottle as if all was right with the world, and I was witnessing a sensual display of lazy smoke signals from a far-off mountaintop.

Surely, there was more to come.

Within an instant, the smoke was pushed aside by a terrific swoosh of erupting, foul smelling, corrosive gas. It exploded from the bottle like Jeannie from her lamp, blasting the kitchen ceiling with its force. Curling and unfurling streams of gas fell back down and settled neatly on the counter in rolling waves.

The incredibly bright, orange-brown smoke cloud, once hugging the ceiling, began seeking other high places throughout the house. I raced through the kitchen, turning on the kitchen fan and opened the back door. I gathered up my curious Pomeranian and threw him in the bedroom with my Chihuahua, turning on the bedroom fan and opening that window in one smooth movement.

It was then that I decided to call 911. Running to the phone in the hall, I dialed the emergency number and waited breathlessly for the operator to pick up the call. "911. What is your emergency?" the calm, female voice inquired.

"I need a Hazmat team. I accidentally mixed alcohol with nitric acid." I said gasping for breath. Either I was hyperventilating from the fumes, or from sheer terror. I had no idea whether the cloud would burst into flames or harmlessly dissipate. The operator very calmly said, "Get your family out of the house. I have a crew on the way."

I didn't bother to tell her I had no family except two small dogs that were weathering the noxious cloud, safely sequestered in the bedroom.

I ran out into the driveway and awaited rescue. Within five minutes, two very large fire engines pulled into my street and I waved them down with a towel I had used to cover my nose and mouth while inside.

Four Hazmat team members clamored down from the fire trucks and approached me in the driveway. Again, with some embarrassment, I explained what had happened. They had no idea what I meant by "etching meteorites" and simply looked at me with mild amusement. One guy even asked me with a wink and a smile if I was "making bombs." I replied with an equally wide smile, "No, not today."

As the first member approached the front door (which I had left open to air out the place), an alarm on his Hazmat suit began going off. Before he was even inside, the alarm bleated out a warning: hazardous material ahead. Duh.

The Hazmat team was reluctant to enter my house. They gathered outside on my front porch and gestured amongst themselves. They were not able to hear each other because they were covered from head to toe with Hazmat gear, including fully enclosed helmets and oxygen tanks. They looked like Michelin Tire Aliens.

By this time, all my neighbors had gathered in my driveway, wondering why two fire trucks responded to a house that was NOT on fire. I explained that "there was a chemical spill" and there was nothing to worry about. I was fine. (This turned out to be an excellent way to meet my neighbors, by the way.)

It took quite some time for the team to feel safe enough to enter the house. They approached the kitchen with extreme caution and witnessed the scene of the crime on the still-smoking kitchen countertop. They applied what is called "Oil-Dry" to the counter (known outside the biz as "kitty litter"). Water, unfortunately, will not clean up a nitric acid spill, and can, in fact, make it worse.

Maybe it was because I was barefooted in a chilly Atlanta autumn evening. Maybe it was because I was tired and bored with all the questions and the blank stares when I provided the answers, but in any case, it seemed to be taking a long time to clear the house of fumes. I began worrying about my two dogs and became convinced they had succumbed to the harmful gas. I asked the Hazmat team to rescue my dogs from the bedroom. It seemed like a simple request. Within minutes, my Pomeranian had been rescued and was safely in my arms, licking my face and wiggling as usual. But my Chihuahua was still inside. Minutes passed. Then more. Finally, the female Hazmat member came out the front door and motioned to her male colleagues who were milling about outside. She needed help getting my four-pound Chihuahua off the bed. Apparently, my little, bitty dog was a bit unnerved by these aliens and wasn't the least bit interested in visiting their planet.

It took four Hazmat members-three burly men and one woman-to rescue my Chihuahua. Now, with both dogs safely in my arms, I chatted with my neighbors until I received the "all clear."

Within about an hour the fumes had found their way outside and harmlessly drifted away. I was allowed back in my kitchen and saw the damage the evil mixture had made. My countertop was virtually destroyed. The acid had eaten away the first couple of layers of polyurethane and wood. Inches away, an African violet remained unharmed. Go figure.

I felt ashamed for chastising John earlier, when I had, in fact, destroyed the whole countertop, not just a few "dribbles."

Now that the crisis was over, I had time to think about what had just happened. If I had been bewitched by the first few wisps of harmless looking smoke coming from the nitric acid bottle and peered into the neck to watch the reaction, I would have at least been blinded and permanently disfigured. But somewhere beyond the asteroid belt, a tiny voice told me to run, and I did.

I profusely thanked the Hazmat team and even interested the driver in the wonderful world of meteorites. My dogs and I didn't get hurt, and my house didn't burn down. I met some wonderful neighbors. So, all in all, it was a very good day.

What has this experience taught me? Lots.
  1. Wear goggles and rubber gloves when messing with chemicals and acid. Even if you're just reading the label!
  2. Oh yeah, always read the label.
  3. Always have kitty litter, baking soda and a fire extinguisher nearby.
  4. Cover the surface where you'll be working.
  5. Pay attention to what you're doing. It's a bad time to let your mind wander.
  6. Don't be afraid to call 911. They would rather be called to a false alarm then NOT be called to a real one.

Anita Westlake was the president of the Meteorite Association of Georgia from 7/2007 through 7/2011.

Please feel free to Contact the Meteorite Association of Georgia with any comments!

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