Element Collection

Element Collection

Friday, March 9, 2012

Chemophobia: An Era of Discouraging Scientific Curiosity

In doing research for my experiments, I often run across articles in the news about police raiding suspected "home meth labs" or "amateur bomb making facilities." These are very often people's homes, which the authorities, for one reason or another, suspect are conducting illicit activity. Now I'm not against the police taking down such operations, on the contrary it's a good thing that these people get taken off the streets. However, in many cases they go overboard and barge in on amateur scientists like myself, who have no intention or capability of producing drugs or explosives at all, let alone in any sizable or dangerous quantity. If such search and seizures are to be conducted, those responsible need to have a damn good reason for doing so! It's quite clear if someone is engaging in drug production or explosives manufacturing vs someone who simply has an interest in science.

As an example, the following article came to my attention today: http://toronto.openfile.ca/toronto/text/byron-sonne-thin-line-between-terrorist-and-gardener

I recommend you read the entire article, but here's the part I want to call attention to, the 'laundry list' of presumably scary chemicals with dangerous-sounding names.

No one disputes that Sonne had a lab in his basement, stocked with glassware and neatly labelled containers (see photos here). There was potassium permanganate, potassium nitrate, ammonium nitrate, iron oxide and zinc oxide. There was stearine, copper sulfate, urea, hydrogen peroxide and aluminum powder, as well as dextrin, sulfamic acid, hexachloroethane, charcoal, potassium silicate and sodium bicarbonate. Sonne had plastic bags full of wax shavings and PVC shavings, and a container of hexamine tablets next to his camp stove. There was acetone, methyl hydrate and hydrochloric acid in his garage. In his furnace room, he had an electrochemical setup where he seemed to be turning potassium chloride into potassium chlorate, a shiny white crystal that is, Anderson said, a well-known ingredient in improvised explosives like TATP (triacetone triperoxide) and HMTD (hexamethylene triperoxide diamlene). Most of these chemicals have multiple uses.

Multiple uses? That's a massive understatement. Here's what I came up with off the top of my head.

Potassium Nitrate: common stump remover
Ammonium Nitrate & Urea: fertilizers
Iron Oxide: rust
Zinc Oxide: used in sunscreen lotions
Stearin: used in making tallow for candles and soaps
Copper Sulfate: root killer for plumbing pipes, also used to make beautiful crystals, “beakers of which were found during the search
Hydrogen Peroxide: disinfectant found in nearly every household
Dextrin: can be used as a pyrotechnic binder and fuel, aligning with his interest in rocketry
Wax & PVC Shavings: used as binders for rocket engines, also aligning with his rocketry hobby
Sulfamic acid: common ingredient in limescale and rust remover
Charcoal: BBQ grills
Potassium Silicate: a form of ‘water glass,’ which has a long list of innocuous uses (see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Water_glass#Uses)
Sodium Bicarbonate: BAKING SODA (this one really makes it sound like they are trying to make him into the bad guy, by using the chemical name that not everyone will recognize)
Hexamine: solid fuel tablets for camping stoves, found next to a camp stove (shocking)
Acetone: paint thinner found in nearly every garage
Methyl Hydrate: aka methanol, used as automotive antifreeze, found in his garage presumably near his car
Hydrochloric Acid: readily available as a concrete etchant & pool chemical

The only items I can't think of common household uses for are Potassium Permanganate, Hexachloroethane, Aluminum Powder, and his Potassium Chlorate electrolysis setup. The latter two have uses in pyrotechnics, so are conceiveably related to his rocketry interest. In any case, all are very useful reagents that would likely be used by someone interested in home chemistry like I am. I have 3/4 of these in my own lab, in fact, as well as the majority of the rest. I have no interest whatsoever in illicit activity, and I certainly don't have the amounts necessary to do anything major anyway (and by the looks of it, neither did he).

Take a look at the photos of his lab too, it's neater than mine! I know this isn't conclusive evidence, but generally speaking drug cooks and bombers don't keep a tidy space and rarely use real laboratory equipment and glassware.

Now obviously I don't know anything about his guilt or innocence, but it looks to me like he was just running a simple home laboratory because of a passion for science, just like I am. Now, because of this atmosphere of paranoia where anyone that does anything unique, intelligent, or otherwise out of the ordinary immediately gets the label of 'potential terrorist,' he must fight a lengthy legal battle and get lots of unwanted negative press. His neighbors will forever know him as 'that guy.'

It used to be that passers-by would see little Johnny outside building a potato cannon and think "Wow, that kid is smart! He's going places." Now, the first thing to come to mind is "Better keep an eye on him! He might be dangerous," and parents would rather their children stay inside and watch TV or play video games*. It's a sad time indeed when scientific curiosity is discouraged in such a way.

I could go on about this all day, but let's leave it at this: If you see your neighbors mixing liquids, soldering circuit boards, or building something in their garage, don't assume the worst! Go over and talk to them, find out what their interests are, and you might just learn something.

*Full disclosure: I watch TV and play video games often myself :) I still leave time for science though!


  1. I agree with you 100%.

    P.S. When will you upload a new YouTube video?

    1. Sometime in the next couple weeks, I hope. Things have been very busy at work lately. I'm finishing up a chemistry-related project that has taken me about 6 months to design and build, so a post and video should be coming for that very soon. Exciting to finally finish!

  2. It wasn't the simple act of running a home laboratory that got the accused arrested. Prior to the G20 summit, Byron Sonne was seen taking pictures of the security fence, acting suspicious, posted material online on how to breach the security of the summit, and inquired about the security pass used to gain access to the summit.

    In the age of security and safety that we live in, authorities took the "safe than sorry" route on this guy.

    The lesson of the day is not that you can't have a home laboratory, it's that if you operate a home laboratory and chronicle your experiments, don't go online in forums talking about "blowing stuff up". Authorities are walking on pins and needles already.

    1. That's a stupid lesson and thanks for provide 0 sources to support your allegations. Details matter and it's helpful to know which details your using before you start giving out "lessons of the day".

      Anyways, figured this belongs here:

  3. Great post Dan. Keep 'em coming! -Forrest

  4. Definitely scary, but he was deliberately looking for trouble. An article in the Toronto Star (assuming it is not a propaganda piece) paints:

    "Long before Toronto was even considered a destination for the G20 summit, Sonne was “poking the bear” by trying to draw attention to himself to see if authorities could tell the difference between a bona fide terrorist and a troublemaking smart aleck.

    His original hypothesis, he says, was to prove Canada was actually a lot freer than the post-9/11 myths would have you believe — that simply having a copy of Mein Kampf or buying a bunch of fertilizer was not enough to get you on a no-fly list."


    He is surprisingly unrepentent:

    Asked if he would consider testing the system again in a similar way, Sonne said, "Probably."

    "I would probably do it a lot more consistently; I'd probably document it a lot more," he said.


    On a personal note, I've possessed most of those chemicals in my life (many came with chemistry sets - when chemistry sets were real and not watered down like they are now).

    I also used to do model rocketry, but ... given the current climate, I am no longer interested in mixing up propellant in my basement anymore.

  5. That is a real shame. I feel sorry for him.. but seriously, you could accuse anyone of having precursors to explosives, but does that really mean they are going to make something to blow up things? No. What if someone happens to have paint remover, (acetone), hydrogen peroxide for disinfecting cuts, and concrete cleaner (hydrochloric acid), they could make plenty of TATP but that doesn't mean they will.

  6. It is disappointing that the authorities are not able to tell the difference between a home lab and the much more dangerous alternatives.Then again it incredibly easy to acquire suspicious chemical reagents over here in India.For example a 1L bottle of 33% Hydrochloric acid is Rs.45(Less than a dollar).And the hydrogen peroxide sold in stores is 10%;its meant to be diluted for use on cuts and bruises ! And ammonium nitrate is very cheap around Rs 35(a little more than half a dollar) a kilo and has been used for many terrorist attacks around the country.My point is this - due to the availability of chemicals enthusiasts will buy and use these for their hobbies.Instead of accusing whoever has chemicals of terrorism or drug making the authorities need to use their discretion and common sense.

    P.S.- More videos please !

  7. While I couldn't agree with you more with regards to the paranoia and invasion of privacy issues you bring up, I do have something to point out that might be helpful. In 11th grade I signed up for Chemistry and Physics. I loved science and was both excited and hopeful about what path those classes would open to me. Sadly, I had a serious car accident in the beginning of the first semester missing over a month of class. Needless to say, regardless of my desire I was too far behind to catch up. I ended up leaving school for the US Army because they were offering High School diplomas. I tell you this to illustrate that I am probably the exception when it comes to interest yet even with that and forty years of peripheral investigation into the basics of both disciplines, I am still thoroughly confused by just the titles of most of you blog posts. I have no idea why I would be interested in Chevreul's Salt or Potassium Chlorate from Bleach or for that matter nearly any of the entries I looked through. Now I may just be a dummy sand it isn't worth the effort, but I wonder if the unwashed public who know little to nothing about chemistry wouldn't be less likely to make the kind of assumptions you fairly exposed here if they were better informed. That said, who is better able to inform them but someone with the knowledge.

    I submit that your site would increase in value by simply adding a why this matters statement along with the title. If I understood why Potassium Chlorate from Bleach is interesting I might decide to read the post but when every posting is pure gibberish I don't know what would be interesting so I don't bother. Remember I am someone with an innate interest in science as opposed to those less inclined who are likely to not even bother past the first page. I scanned most of your articles looking for a glimpse of something I recognized.

    That it or leave it but I how you consider my thoughts.

    1. Thanks for the comments and interest. On my blog, I almost always describe the purpose of the experiment I am doing in the initial section; for example, in my potassium chlorate post I note that it finds use as "a powerful oxidizer [for] amateur rocketry, a convenient source of oxygen, and the famous 'screaming gummy bear' demo." I didn't have room in the title for all that!

      Also, sometimes the purpose of an experiment is simply because I enjoy the process of chemistry. In one of my YouTube videos, I made terbium nitrate just because it exhibits bright green fluorescence. Is there any real use for the compound? I don't know, but I thought it would be fun to make it and other people might be interested in seeing it as well.

      Whenever I come across "pure gibberish" I take it as a challenge. I start searching on the terms I don't understand and ask questions to further my knowledge of the subject. If there's anything you want to know I'd be happy to help. I do understand your point, though. Perhaps I can more clearly call out the uses of the target chemical or the "point" of the experiment in my posts. Check out my YouTube videos if you haven't already seen them - the link is in the top right. Perhaps seeing the process in action would help.
      Thanks again for taking the time to comment.