A Florida student mixed aluminum foil and toilet bowl cleaner and got more than she bargained for. Was it a science experiment gone wrong?
Kiera Wilmot was a student at Bartow High School in Florida. She has been expelled and arrested for essentially doing an experiment that involved mixing aluminum foil and toilet bowl cleaner inside an 8 ounce plastic bottle. It generates gas causing the top of the bottle to pop. This was considered a bomb or explosive and therefore violates Section 7.05 of the Polk County district 2011-2012 Code of Student Conduct that requires the student to be expelled for a year. By the way, this is a 75 page document that I doubt most parents have read in detail let alone the students.
The arrest could have more impact on the student that may have been a budding scientist or engineer. She is being charged with a felony. This might be in response to the tragic events in Boston but hopefully the someone will see reason before a child's life is ruined.
I have read the incident report but cannot really report on the details of the case without talking with the people involved. On the other hand, there are significant issues associated with it and trends that are of concern.
For the record, let me state that I help run the annual Mercer Science and Engineering Fair in Mercer Count, NJ. I can also site a litany of events I was involved in that would make this experiment gone wrong look like what it is, a bad choice.
So let's take a look at what could have happened. First, would this be something that could be in our science fair. Yes, but the way it was done in this instance would not be acceptable. Why? First, it does not appear that this was a supervised or reviewed experiment. It was an inquisitive group of students repeating a project that has shown up on You-Tube. Second, the methodology and safety procedures were all wrong or, rather, there were none. Finally, there was no consideration for cleaning up after the experiment. There is more but this is a blog not a detailed analysis.
Of course, if this were done as a science experiment for the fair it should be done repeatedly as well as adjusting variables in a controlled fashion. Likewise, one or more adults would be overseeing the project. There would be paperwork to get approvals and so on. In fact, done in this process, the Code of Student Conduct would probably have allowed the experiment to be done on school property.
We often get criticism about our requirements and paperwork for the science fair in Mercer. We also get complaints from parents who think their child should be able to do any kind of experiment. Some of the experiments we have had to turn down include a student that wanted to shock their sibling with wires plugged into an 110 V outlet. Another wanted to use the left over prescription cancer medication from their grandparent that had explicit instructions to keep away from children in an experiment. The favorite is growing bacteria at home. This list is almost endless.
On the other hand, I will be taking our grand prize winner to Phoenix in a couple weeks to the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF) to compete. Our winner did work on quantum dots and LEDs to generate pure white light. The fairs are a great outlet for budding scientists and engineers.
One of the events at ISEF is a panel session with Nobel Prize winners. One discussion that always comes up is what they did as young students and explosives and similar nasty things are revealed. It reminds me of many of the experiments I did, many unsupervised. They kindled an interest in science that properly channeled so I eventually wound up here with a degree in electrical engineering and another in computer science.
These days, any one of those experiments would have derailed my career. That is not to say I got away with everything. My collection of powder metals, potassium perchlorate and other chemicals got taken away when I lit off a real explosive without supervision that rocked the house.
Of course, there were a couple of things I did get away with that were less dangerous, sort of. These days you probably will not see electrolysis being done in the schools because it generates gases that can explode. When I was in school we did it with 6-V batteries. That was great but being an intrepid future EE I decided to try generate a larger amount of gas more quickly using a motor controller I had built using an SCR.
Now we did generate lots of gas and created an explosion significantly larger than the other students but this was all done under supervision. Even the explosion was initiated remotely from behind a plexiglass barrier. It was great fun but there were issues. The SCR is a half wave rectifier and it was adjustable so you could actually see the pulsing of the bubbles on the electrodes. It allowed us to experiment with the voltage but we wanted a more continuous flow of bubbles. We wound up adding a filter capacitor to the output. Remember, I was only a budding EE at the time with only the vaguest notion of electronics. While trying various size caps we discovered that we could turn on all the bells in the school. I'll let you figure out how and why but it did get us out of class early.
We eventually showed it to our science teacher because even scientists like to show off but the system got shelved as we went on to more interesting experiments.
One more anecdote before I get to my final comment. My wife and I are both scientists and engineers as are our three kids (see Dragon Runner Shows Up At Wedding As Ring Bearer). We helped out at their school by providing hands-on-science classes during lunchtime because these days science is often simulated or book learning only.
So my final comment is that we need to make sure our youngsters learn to experiment and understand things like chemistry. Ignorance is not bliss. That toilet bowl cleaner used in the experiment in Florida is available in almost any grocery store and it is only one item that can be both dangerous on its own as well as in combination with other items.
There is a major difference between inquisitiveness and maliciousness. The same is true of ignorance and understanding. We need scientists, engineers and a population in general that is both inquisitive and understanding.
By the way, the equation for the reaction is:
6HCl(aq) + 2Al(s) –> 2AlCl3(aq) + 3H2(g)