Fascinating chemical of the week – Hydrofluoric acid

Following on from the awesome science videos series of blog posts that I’ve started doing, I’ve also decided to create a series looking at new and fascinating substances that you may have never heard of before.  They may be dangerous, quirky, unpredictable or just have a really interesting history, but there are so many different substances out there .  To get the ball rolling, we’re starting off by looking at hydrofluoric acid (also know as HF).

Chemically speaking, hydrofluoric acid is similar to the more familiar hydrochloric acid – except it’s a whole lot more dangerous!  Highly corrosive, HF causes exceptionally vicious burns and extensive tissue damage, as it passes into the tissues much more easily than most acids.  To make matters worse, HF burns are often initially painless as HF readily destroys nerve tissue, so accidental exposures can go unnoticed until the damage is well and truly done.  It causes so much of its damage by removing calcium ions in the tissue (which are vital to muscle and nerve function), combined with a massive increase of fluoride ions in the bloodstream.

The corrosive nature of HF explains several of its common uses, as it is a part of some strong cleaning solutions.  In fact, it is so corrosive that it is one of the very few acids that can successfully etch glass, although bizarrely there are some plastics that are resistant to its damage.  It is also used to add fluorine atoms into hydrocarbon molecules for research, but it’s so dangerous that all the safety advice says to avoid it if at all possible.  So it may be useful, but I sincerely hope that I never have to use it!

One response to “Fascinating chemical of the week – Hydrofluoric acid

  1. Yeah – gotta handle it with caution 🙂 There’s a scene in an episode of Breaking Bad where the two characters get on the wrong end of some hydrofluoric acid and it ends very messily…very cool substance, though.

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