Wednesday, August 2, 2023

Louisville chemist's house to be burned due to hazardous storage of chemicals

Via Louisville Public Media: 
Police arrested 53-year-old Marc Hibel last week on a felony wanton endangerment charge after he admitted to having the explosive chemical TNP, or picric acid, in his home and to making homemade explosives. The Louisville Metro Police Department’s bomb squad exploded a device in the back of one of the properties he was occupying at 6211 and 6213 Applegate Lane. Hibel is a trained chemist.

Mayor Craig Greenberg said at a Tuesday news conference that some chemicals remain in the home, but because of an “extreme hoarding situation,” it’s impossible for a hazmat crew or robot to remove them safely.

“The only option to safely proceed is to incinerate the chemicals inside the home by setting a planned, monitored and controlled burn of the house, which will combust any of the chemicals that are present inside the home,” he said.

Makes you wonder where he was getting the picric acid from. (Also, this reminds me of the 2012 controlled burn of a 'bomb factory' house in San Diego.)  

I've never felt the need to be a home chemist, although I do really want to start a liquor distillation setup someday. Nevertheless, there are clearly people who really do want to do experimental laboratory chemistry at home and it just seems to be such a strange phenomena. I imagine there are many home chemists who do it well, but it feels like there are many more people* who end up gathering massive collections of chemicals. 

*who are we kidding, it's men


  1. I agree with your self reflection at the end.

    You aren't going to have the equipment (although Ebay might help) to do a modern characterization. Some regulations are over the top (nitrosamine is a recent one) but fume hoods exist for a reason!

    I'm curious what motivations for home chemistry could be: Let's see if this explodes. Let's see if this is psychedlic. I have the perfect formula for (shampoo, supermagnet, glue?) and it will be obvious from the material properites when I make it. Big science has hidden this from me and I can release the knowledge.

    Seems like a weird home hobby/interest/compulsion to me. But I obviously do not understand :)

    1. I know of one-man businesses with home labs, but it's usually innocuous stuff like trying several different defoamers in a customer's paint, or rebuilding old analytical instruments to sell for profit. Post-9/11, it's difficult for legitimate small business owners to get either chemicals or lab apparatus shipped to their homes.

  2. YouTuber "NileRed" makes a living from at-home chemistry. Kind of hacky, IMO, but entertaining.

  3. Yeah, I've never understood the appeal of home chemistry, or the point. But I guess if maybe you were precluded from chemistry as a vocation, it'd have an appeal alien to a professional chemist like me.

    Don't get me wrong, I've had bits of analytical gear at home (there is a GC-MS awaiting setup in my shed as I write this) but the idea of doing any kind of wet chem at home isn't in the slightest appealing.

    That said, I have had one serious chem storage incident at home. An old co-worker of mine wanted to offload some chemicals and I rather stupidly accepted about a pound of chromium trioxide. My mistake was forgetting about it as soon as I stored it in the garage when I got home - I had left the bottle with plastic lid oriented sideways. A year later, I was cleaning out the garage and discovered that it had become deliquescent, eaten through the lid and dripped down the side of some cardboard boxes and power supplies. That's a great way to ruin your afternoon. So, I spent the next couple of days trying to figure out how to dispose chromic acid-soaked metal and paper safety. I ended up wrapping everything in plastic (wearing full PPE), sealing it in a bucket and calling in some favours from my old grad supervisor to organise making it go away it as part of their next heavy metals disposal. Moral of the story - don't accept heavy metals from the pub.

  4. I am surprised that professional chemists would be confused about why other people would find it appealing to do chemistry at home -- did lab courses not have any appeal to you when you were in school? Chemistry has always appealed to me as a way of understanding the finest details of the world and for the resulting ability to manipulate and transform matter. Surely you can understand why some people would pursue that as a hobby if they didn't have the means to do it professionally?

    I did a lot of home chemistry when I was in high school just because it was fascinating. One of my uncles, who was a mechanic without a college degree, pursued high-powered model rocketry (15+ tall rockets reaching multiple mile altitudes) as a hobby, and I learned a lot from him about science and how to design and build things. He once gave me a couple of sodium-filled truck exhaust valves that could be cut open to get the sodium from to throw in water. I don't think I would have become a scientist if not for those experiences. Admittedly, some experiments and syntheses I did were ill-advised due to a lack of knowledge, but I also learned a lot that still applies in my professional life. As an undergraduate, I prevented a serious lab accident (a grad student had let a beaker of flammable liquid catch fire and in his panic was trying to extinguish it with sand) because I was calm enough and experienced enough to immediately get foil to cover it.

    Of course, the home chemistry I did was as a teenager before going to college, but not everyone has the opportunity to go to good technical schools. I know of amateur pyrotechnics clubs in the Midwest US that are the hobby of middle-aged factory workers who like fireworks enough to want to build them. None of this is to defend the particular example in the Louisville story, which sounds like an extreme case given the hoarding and possibility the guy was squatting on the property. Still, I have to admonish the confused attitude towards hobby science as a general concept. It strikes me as a rather anti-curiosity perspective for scientists to have!

    Btw, picric acid can be made from aspirin and a couple other common chemicals.


looks like Blogger doesn't work with anonymous comments from Chrome browsers at the moment - works in Microsoft Edge, or from Chrome with a Blogger account - sorry! CJ 3/21/20