New chemical compounds are discovered or created regularly, some are created where the properties can already be guessed at, others are complete surprises, in 1930 a new compound was discovered by Ruff and Krug in Germany. It was very volatile so was ignored until a few years later interest was rekindled by Nazi scientists at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute.
It was here the compound was dubbed n-stoff (substance n) and it showed some remarkable properties. It boiled at room temperature and produced a toxic gas, if the gas ignited (which it did VERY easily) it burned at over 2,400 degrees Celsius. If it decomposed, it turned into a hydrofloric and hydrochloric acid, usually in steam form. It was corrosive and explosive on contact with water. If it bonded with carbon it would form an explosive that if touched would detonte. It turned out to be a better oxidising agent than…oxygen. What does that mean in layman’s terms? It was so good at setting fire to things that it made substances you wouldn’t normally consider flammable, flammable- like sand or glass or … asbestos.
Research and production was moved to Falkenhagen Industrial Complex and bunker network in Brandenburg. Here it was manufactured with other nasty chemicals like Sarin gas. The plan was to produce 50 tons of n-stoff a month and use it to melt defences, burn tanks, destroy armies, set fire to cities. It really was a mad scientist type weapon.
However by the end of the war only about 30 tons of it was ever produced. The reason? The stuff was simply so unstable and so dangerous there was no practical way to use it. One plan to put it into flamethrowers had the simple problem of it eating through all the components of the flame thrower that weren’t steel and then setting fire to everything just for good measure.
The Falkenhagen Industrial Complex was captured by the Soviet Union and exactly what happened for the next few years is unknown, but n-stoff disappears from the pages of history. However the technical chemical name from this highly dangerous compound is Chlorine triflouride and a very different organisation took an interest in it.
Oxidising agents are vital in rocket fuel and it was Chlorine triflouride’s extremely effective oxidisation properties that made NASA look into it as a potential rocket fuel. That was until in the early 1950’s a tank ruptured and spilled 900 kilograms of Chlorine triflouride over a concrete floor. The substance caught fire (as it inevitably does- it was a miracle it didn’t just explode) and proceeded to set fire to the concrete. The fire was so fierce it burned through 30 cms of solid concrete and then, as a finale burned through 90cms of gravel. Under any other circumstances gravel doesn’t burn, it can get scorched, melt under immense temperatures, but it takes a very special kind of chemical fire to make gravel burn.
NASA also faced the other problem with Chlorine triflouride which is that when it was mixed with any other fuel or propellant to be turned into rocket fuel it instantly ignites, so leading to fuel fires…every time. Clearly Chlorine triflouride doesn’t play well with others.
In the words of Dr. John Drury Clark (an expert in rocket fuels for Nasa)
“…the operator is confronted with the problem of coping with a metal-fluorine fire. For dealing with this situation, I have always recommended a good pair of running shoes.”
NASA unsurprisingly ended tests on this nasty little compound and that you would think is that. However finally there has been a peaceful use created for this compound. It is now used (in small amounts) to clean superconductors chambers without having to dismantle them.