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May 2016
 

The Bellinghman
Date: 2011-08-11 20:10
Subject: Sorry
Security: Public
I appears that I need to apologise to the north half of Royston tonight.

It started a little before 16:00. I was working away at some code that is meant to generate PDF files, trying to persuade an underlying component of the virtues of CMYK, when beyond my monitor, I saw something flying up into the air, trailing coloured smoke. Since this is an industrial estate, on the north edge of a small town, my brain contradicted my immediate first reaction, which was that someone had just fired a smoke grenade.

Yes, I know there have been rioters in some parts of England, but for Royston, mid afternoon, to be the first place that British police started deploying such countermeasures? No way. It must have been an odd reflection on the inside of the window.

But I looked again, and could see a yellowy-brown smudge drifting leftwards behind the Hotel Chocolat offices.

OK, something really there, and it was just our side of a building that is on the main road of which our office's side road is.

Well, someone had had a mishap.

Presumably whichever company it was would sort it out pretty sharpish. I was fairly sure it was a company that did printed circuit boards.

And so for five or ten minutes, we watched from a distance, and our disquiet mounted, since there was now quite a strong plume of ochre smoke coming from behind that hedge. After a bit, I wandered out through our car park, across the car park beyond (the one shared by us, Hotel Chocolat and the sorting office as an overflow), and got close up to the fence. From there, I could see into the back yard of the company in question. There didn't seem to be anyone around.

Not too good.

There was a large tank - about a metre high, a metre in diameter - which had a now-open opening on its top, maybe 20 cm across. Out of that opening was coming a solid pillar of the fumes which dissipated pretty quickly in the air.

I then went back to our reception, and we used Google Maps to zoom in to find the name of the company in question - Tru-lon Printed Circuits. Our receptionist Yelsel called their number, which was answered fairly quickly. Somewhat to our surprise, it turned out to be someone in Stevenage, which is a different town halfway down the county from us. It looks like the reason that nobody at Tru-lon was doing anything was that there was nobody there - the premises had been closed a while back. The person in Stevenage guessed from our description that the fumes were nitric acid, and said they'd send a chemist up to deal with it.

All well and good, but about 20 minutes after the initial pop, it was still smoking, even if nothing like as badly as it had been:

The smoking tank

So, we called the Fire Brigade.

About half an hour later, they were taking it quite seriously. We had a visitor telling us to stay indoors. At lkeast, that's what we think he said — it can be a tad difficult to understand someone speaking through a respirator:

New company dress code


And then, just before 18:00, the police arrived in force to evacuate us.

The road blocked off

That's an impressive array of vehicles there.

It appears that both roads into the industrial estate were closed off, and that even the route into town from the A505 was closed off.

So, this is my apology. If we'd not done anything, that tank would probably have continued fuming at a low level, without anyone being put out, until it finally evaporated. Instead, there was near gridlock in town. I can only think they react this strongly because they're prepared for problems at Johnson Matthey
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(no subject) - (Anonymous)
The Bellinghman
User: bellinghman
Date: 2011-08-12 08:42 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Not having checked the MSDS myself, I'll take your word for it. But it will have been nasty stuff.

And yes, I think your degradation in a sealed container was exactly what had been going on, and a nice warm afternoon finally got it to the point that the cap couldn't hold the pressure any more.
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Sion: home page portrait
User: sion_a
Date: 2011-08-12 10:13 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:home page portrait
White fuming nitric does indeed build up a nice head of NOx when heated in a sealed (plastic) container, and gives off the resulting red/yellow cloud when pressure is released. I know, because my first summer job involved heating fuming nitric acid in PTFE pressure containers. NOx is deeply unpleasant, and fuming nitric is the scariest thing I handled in my wet chemistry days (beating out liquid nitrogen). I think the fire-brigade's response was entirely proportionate.
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Jos Dingjan
User: happydisciple
Date: 2011-08-12 12:40 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Liquid nitrogen is fiiine, as long as you're a bit sensible. Worked with it (and liquid helium) when I was a student.

My research group colleagues at the time told me about their experience working with liquid hydrogen, in glass dewars. Windows open, just in case a dewar would go pop. Oh, and somebody outside their window with a blowtorch. They asked them to stop doing that.

Scariest I've worked with is HF, never again if at all possible.
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