Blown Out of Proportion?

Things got blown out of proportion when 16-year-old Kiera Wilmot tried a science experiment without adult supervision at her Florida school last month. Kiera mixed toilet bowl cleaner and a bit of aluminum foil inside a plastic bottle. The reaction produced hydrogen gas, which blew the cap off with a loud pop. School officials suspended her from Bartow High School in Florida. They had her arrested too, although authorities eventually dismissed the charges.

Kiera’s story struck a chord with former NASA scientist Homer Hickham. One time when police alleged that Hickham had started a forest fire, his physics teacher and high school principal came to his defense. Now Hickham has arranged for both Kiera and her twin sister Kayla to attend Space Camp this summer. That’s good news for Kiera, who hopes to eventually work in robotics.

Movie buffs may remember that Hickman wrote Rocket Boys, the book that inspired the 1999 movie October Sky. Even if you’re not into science, check out the book or the movie. It’s a great coming-of-age story.

For my part, I became curious. Why would toilet bowl cleaner and aluminum foil cause an explosion?

Argonne National Laboratory provides a great online explanation in response to a question posed by 14-year-old Lynn in the year 2000. Scientist Vince Calder explains that the chemical reaction is:

6HCl + 2Al = 2AlCl3 + 3H2

The hydrogen is released as a gas. And, as Calder adds:

“Hydrogen is explosively flammable, so one should not play around with this.”

Speaking at a press conference, Kiera said, “I made the mistake of performing my experiment outside of the classroom. However, that is the only mistake that I feel that I have made.”

I hope Kiera learns a lot more about lab safety. Adult supervision may not sound like fun. Goggles, gloves, and other precautions may not seem glamorous. But they’re important for protecting students.

Safety rules aren’t just for schools, either. Academic, commercial, and governmental labs all require their people to practice safety protocols.

Here’s hoping Kiera has a satisfying career in science and technology. Safe experimental practices can help make that career a long one.

And please: Do NOT try this at home!


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