Chemical Hacking At A Store Near You

Imagine for a minute that you aren’t an electronic-savvy Hackaday reader. But you find an old chemistry book at a garage sale and start reading it. It has lots of interesting looking experiments, but they all require chemicals with strange exotic names. One of them is ferric chloride. You could go find a scientific supply company, but that’s expensive and often difficult to deal with as an individual (for example, 2.5 liters of nitric acid costs over $300 for a case of six at a common lab supply company). Where would you go?

As an astute electronics guy (or gal) you probably know that ferric chloride is common for PCB etching, so you would check the electronic store down the street or maybe Radio Shack if you are lucky enough to find one that still stocks it.

So sometimes knowing where to look for a chemical is a key part of acquiring it, especially when the names are not the same. For example, do you have any amylose? No? That’s corn starch. Want to try making your own cadmium sulfide light sensor? Go to the art supply store and ask for cadmium yellow pigment. Need magnesium carbonate? Stop by a sporting goods store and ask for athlete’s chalk.

You can find a list of these and many more on–of all places–Wikipedia. The table shows the chemical name, the formula, the common name, and some notes for quite a few chemicals that could be useful for the home lab. Sometimes easily available sources need further processing and that’s noted as well. For example, the notes indicate that town gas contains carbon monoxide but that can be removed by passing the gas through a large quantity of citrated chicken blood. You can’t make this stuff up, and if someone has a post to their homemade citrated chicken blood gas scrubber, I’m sure we will post a link to it.

There are a few other places you can check for similar information, including one from California State University. There’s a lot of duplication among these lists, and you can certainly find others with Google.

Of course, you need to be careful. There are a few notes about safety (for example, how to clean up hydrofluoric acid spills). However, a lot of this stuff is dangerous when used improperly or mixed with other things, so if you don’t know what you are doing, you should probably not be doing it.

If you need help with nomenclature, we got that. Or maybe you want to get some homemade lab gear.

Photo credit: [Joe Sullivan] Creative Commons

56 thoughts on “Chemical Hacking At A Store Near You

    1. When it comes to chemistry, the warning given in the article is more appropriate. Look up the dangers of hydroflouric acid if you want to know why I say this. That’s only one example.
      Chemistry isn’t like electronics hacking where the worst damage you can get is a small burn and some smoke inhalation. You mix the wrong chemicals, you’re dead. You get a little moisture where it doesn’t belong, and you’re dead. You splash the wrong substance on your arm, and you no longer have an arm, if the gangrene doesn’t kill you entirely.
      Education before attempting chemistry, or at the very least having a mentor present who knows what they are doing, is absolutely vital.

      1. That can be true for electronics as well. You can electrocute yourself, start a fire, etc…
        You are right though, there is a whole lot more that can go horribly wrong with chemistry.

        “you should probably not be doing it” isn’t very encouraging though. How about “you should do your homework first”? Or better yet, since you never know what you don’t know how about “find someone with experience to help you”?

        I like that message better.

    2. It’s less “you should never do it” and more “you should really seriously find out what you’re doing before proceeding to do it”, really. Knowing what you’re doing is a thing that you can get to, you just… don’t want to plow forward without getting “I know what I’m doing” sorted out in this case.

        1. +1 Be knowledgeable and be afraid when dealing with the “known knowns” and the “known unknowns”. And always take what you “know” are stupid precautions for the “unknown unknowns”.

      1. In most countries, coal gas has been discontinued in favor of either LP or methane. Accidental CO poisoning, or suicide by turning on the oven gas and resting in the kitchen, don’t happen because of a gas leak anymore.

        Now, personal experience tells me they happen because of pilot lights being seriously misadjusted.

        1. I understand people aren’t always using it for their intended purpose but if they’re not going to use it for heating, what are they using it for?
          You can buy cylinders, or generate both hydrogen and methane easier than it would be to filter out CO. Why would need to get rid of CO but not separate hydrogen and methane? It doesn’t make sense.

          1. If the flame goes out. It used to be common for “first responders” of the day to find victims of carbon monoxide poisoning in their homes when they were simply boiling water and the flame went out causing CO to increase in the kitchen while they were waiting for the water to boil.

  1. sounds great until you realise that they got rid of all the fun stuff years ago and its all ‘synthetic’. Which also explains why everyone complains about nothing working properly anymore.

    1. Chemistry is all about turning one thing into another, lack of (some) pure chemicals can slow the process down but restricting chemicals is a little like trying to censor the internet. Restricting elements is more fundamental but most of what anyone would want to make contain elements everyone has access to. For example the Barium restrictions in the UK might affect people wanting to make superconductors, but licences are potentially available for amateur experimenters.

      1. cotton wool that is actually cotton wool and not synthetic fibre.

        you can’t make gun cotton without cotton!!!

        it’s a bit like finding 2″ ID boiler pipe, you wouldn’t want “kids” getting those 2″ British mortar rounds to fly…

  2. And beware of the shit list…

    There’s at least a dozen on there that 1970s man would have had around the kitchen, bathroom, greenhouse, garage etc. So may be referred to in older materials as easily obtainable in quantity.

    Perversely, I see HCl and HNO3 on there, either of which I am fairly sure I can pick up, whereas I have had great difficulty sourcing H2SO4 for pickling and anodizing operations and it’s not even on there.

        1. I have a suspicion it was some new storage/safety rules chased it out of the market in Ontario here, like it had to be in a lockup cabinet and the employees had to do a safety course…. so rather than bother, everywhere dropped it…. meanwhile, stack of new batteries, returned batteries probably piled haphazard out back…

          1. Must be different in the States. I worked as a parts clerk in a previous life, and we still sold H2SO4. There has been a push towards non-serviceable “maintenance free” units, especially AGM-type batteries that have the electrolyte absorbed into a fiberglass material surrounding the plates. Although most automobile batteries are billed as maintenance free, a lot of motorcycle/ATV batteries require maintenance by means of a hydrometer and acid, so that is usually the best direction to look. Also, certain battery types billed for agricultural and industrial use are still serviceable, so you might look there.

            Believe it or not, the used battery processing is fairly streamlined, at least here. We had decent training on technology and safety, and we were accountable for getting every used “core” back to our distribution centers (they were each given a unique bar code). Not everyone used the safety equipment properly, but we took spills seriously, and cleaned them appropriately. We also did a fair amount of educating our customers regarding batteries and disposal of automotive waste products. Not bad for a bunch of punks making minimum wage. Sorry for the rant.

  3. If you get bored, look out old stuff like this and try everything…

    Though if it’s got mercury, arsenic, radium etc in it, don’t feed it to your kids.

    Another general principal to remember…. do everything in extremely tiny quantities the first time… scale up progressively… what “gets a touch warm” in a test tube, will burn your house down if you tried it in a bucket… what had a whiff of gas that caught your throat in a test tube, might gas half the block in a mason jar full.

  4. “For example, the notes indicate that town gas contains carbon monoxide but that can be removed by passing the gas through a large quantity of citrated chicken blood. You can’t make this stuff up, and if someone has a post to their homemade citrated chicken blood gas scrubber, I’m sure we will post a link to it.”

    Hmmm…6th link on a google search
    “Effect of in vitro sodium citrate anticoagulant on results of arterial blood gas analysis.”


    1. It makes sense. I’d bet any oxygen-breathing creature’s blood could work. After all, the whole reason CO is dangerous is it bonds to hemoglobin better than oxygen does.

    1. Has anyone ever tried using the blackener on tool surfaces to prevent rust? I currently use a rust protectant that has paraffin in it. I’m not sure if that has caused some finishing problems on wood projects later. My guess is the blackening converts surface metal to Fe3O4(magnetite).
      Would that be better or would the magnetite just embed in the wood and darken the finish?

  5. Moral of the story: Chemistry class in highschool was important.

    Hahah, I was not that good in chemistry back in the days and I still hate it today but having heard this story makes me want to re-learn the subject. :D

  6. Want to find inexpensive and easy access to most commodity chemicals – search it on e-bay.

    Ebay bans the sale of the really bad stuff.

    whenever you do feel like getting a chemical ALWAYS read the MSDS (sometimes now called the SDS) they are available for free and will warn you of the dangers of the chemical.

  7. If you need nitric acid all you need is a some drain cleaner that has sulfuric acid as the main ingredient and some stump cleaner.
    First make sure it’s KNO3 based which is easy mix some with sugar in 60/40 ratio and see if it burns.

  8. “…making your own cadmium sulfide light sensor? Go to the art supply store and ask for cadmium yellow pigment.”

    Just wanted to say, please dispose of this and others properly.
    Your local ‘waste management center’ likely has a SOP for chemical waste and the facility I live near has a ‘hazardous waste day’ where they will take almost anything toxic as long as it is labeled.

    1. Though I’ve seen some people go ballistic at the idea of pouring a bit of copper sulphate plating solution down the drain… and I’m thinking why not, there’s maybe 3 teaspoons in there, diluted, and I bought it as root killer, the preferred use of which is to pour the whole freaking pound down the drain at once, and follow with another package “if necessary”

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