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Drano Bombs Away

Drano uses sodium hydroxide to unclog drains

You can tell the Fourth of July is nigh when the Drano Bombs start to fly. But its no holiday for authorities in the New York City neighborhood of Washington Heights, who are clearing up after local kids set the aluminum-foil-and-drain-cleaner explosives off at a school over the weekend. The New York Daily News reports that fire and police bomb experts found 20 exploded Drano bombs at Public School 178. And a quote in the story suggests hazmat workers were called to clean up the scene.

The Newscripts gang thinks that destroying property and setting off explosives is never a good idea (unless you’ve been trained to set off pyrotechnics like C&EN’s own Elizabeth Wilson and it’s an appropriate occasion). But the Drano bomb incident did get us thinking about the chemistry involved in this particular reaction.

The Interwebs are full of directions to make (and video of) Drano bombs, but the only decent description of the chemistry involved that I could readily find was at a site set up by the University of Siegen, in Germany.

The main reaction that takes place is the that of aluminum with water to generate hydrogen gas and aluminum hydroxide. When conducted in a closed in a soda bottle, this transformation can make a serious boom.

“Under normal circumstances,” notes the Siegen post, “aluminum does not react with water, as an impermeable protective layer composed of aluminum hydroxide either forms within seconds or is already in place.”

Adding  sodium hydroxide–the key ingredient in drain cleaner–removes a laver of aluminum oxides that’s built up via passive corrosion. This reaction occurs slowly at first, giving Drano bombers a few seconds to slip away.

Sadly, I suspect that interesting redox reactions are not what the kids in Washington Heights are thinking about when they break into the drain cleaner.

6 Comments

  • Jun 24th 201009:06
    by qvxb

    This is disturbing. Sodium hydroxide can cause serious damage to the eyes and skin.

  • Jun 24th 201010:06
    by Bethany Halford

    Oh, I agree with you completely. I wonder if learning more about such chemistry in school would make kids more respectful of household products like Drano or more likely to make Drano bombs.

  • Jul 15th 201012:07
    by qvxb

    NBC’s Today Show did a story on bottle bombs today (http://www.nbc.com/news-sports/today-show/no-childs-play-bottle-bombs-are-dangerous-pranks/). Some people have been injured when the bottles exploded prematurely.

  • Sep 5th 201100:09
    by engineerjob

    Oh, This is worrying. Sodium hydroxide can cause severe damage to eyes and skin.

  • Jan 25th 201322:01
    by Randall

    Actually, it was my chemistry class that gave me the idea to perform similar reactions at home.

  • May 7th 201303:05
    by Rooterman

    As a plumber I know how dangerous that stuff can be in the wrong hands. It’s scary knowing that their are sites out their promoting this kind of behavior

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