What’s That Smell?

We played a little game in the lab yesterday. I am certain anyone who’s worked in an organic chemistry lab has played it (and some other disciplines have their version too, I’ll wager). It starts with the lead player inquiring of his colleagues “Do you smell something?”

The players then move around the lab, sniffing. Follow up questions might include “Who’s been running a Swern Reaction?”, “Did you leave the waste open?” and “Is it stronger over there?” Yesterday’s game featured a review of the oil change log for our vacuum pump (it is quite an old pump and given to the occasional odor). And we wandered into the next door lab to see if they were playing it too.

It turned out that the mystery was solved by visiting my desk, where an email sent to all staff advised us that the Triangle area was being affected by two wild fires (one has been burning a month) and a controlled burn near Fort Bragg. I went outside over lunch and there was a distinct haze in the air, like it was misty. And, unlike most lab related smells, the fresh air was not an escape from the smell.

We do use our noses as a warning system for chemicals, because if you can smell it, it is not being contained fully. This is a valid starting point but regrettably rather imperfect, as some chemicals remain in the “should not be smelled” category. A possibly apocryphal story about a lethal dose of hydrogen cyanide smelling of almonds always made me wonder how they discovered that, imagining an expiring scientist collapsing at the feet of a colleague, gasping his final last words.

Plus there is the other end of the story, chemicals that are just so smelly that the merest trace of them stinks up the place. Work-ups from the afore-mentioned Swern oxidation, with its release of dimethyl sulfide, regularly get complaints from the other denizens of the lab. At one place I worked, a colleague had been so careful with her reaction and kept it strictly in the hood, but the air outside was heavy and still and the cloud of dimethyl sulfide had been sucked back in as part of the make-up air, making a quite different part of the building upset. But despite its pungent aroma, it is really not that dangerous – mostly just unpleasant.

Such chemicals can give quite a challenge to your experimental technique too, as you know you will hear about it if you are careless. It makes you think about each step of your procedure and its possible consequences. We could do worse than pretend that every reaction produces something smelly.

Though that would spoil the game then, wouldn’t it?

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