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Topic: Not a chemist but need story help  (Read 169 times)

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Offline acagle160

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Not a chemist but need story help
« on: August 01, 2019, 01:42:35 PM »
Hi all!

I'm not a chemist but I'm writing a short story that uses some chemistry to resolve the plot. If anyone is willing to critique my ideas for how I'm going to get my character out of the jam they're in (or provide any even better idea from the materials the character has on hand), I'd be very appreciative.

So, the character has stupidly decided to explore a cave without any preparation or anyone knowing he's there. He drops his flashlight and hears it break open on impact. Batteries and other parts roll away. This happens in the 1980's so no cell phone to call for help or light from cell as backup. Before he dropped his flashlight, he found a chamber in the cave with an old moonshine still. The still has a copper pot and copper tubing. He also found a few glass jugs of moonshine with cork lids. Finally, he found old wood used to light a fire under the still and a stream nearby for cooling. The protagonist has a backpack with a walkman that uses AA batteries, a swiss army knife, some gum in aluminum wrappers and a candy bar.

The character will look for the flashlight but be unable to find all the parts in the dark. So, he'll have to use what he has on-hand to make light to help him look. I know the copper could from the still could be used but I haven't figured out how. I'm thinking he'll wrap his shirt in some of the wood and douse it with moonshine. Then, he'll make fire to light his torch using the AA batteries and a gum wrapper. Thoughts on this plan? If you have any ideas on how to modify it to use the moonshine still, I'd be grateful!

Thanks so much for reading and any help.

Offline Enthalpy

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Re: Not a chemist but need story help
« Reply #1 on: August 06, 2019, 07:38:01 AM »
Welcome, Acagle160!

Victor Hugo didn't care exceedingly about writing credible stories and readers don't complain. But I appreciate that your care about.

Flame from a battery and a gum wrapper looks OK. Not every wrapper is said to work. The metal layer must be extra-thin on the paper. Batteries make also sparks, which may suffice with a few liquids like gasoline.

Wood gets damp in a cave. The former users must have protected it.

Whether moonshine catches fire from a small paper? This depends on the concentration and the wick (the character's shirt). For instance rhum, with 40% alcohol, must be hot to catch fire without a wick and make crêpes flambées. I expect a shirt soaked in moonshine not to light: it takes an intense source to heat and evaporate some booze first. Better ignite first a dry part of the shirt, let it burn until the flame reaches the soaking booze. I suggest to experiment that with 40% vodka. If it fail, synthesize some 70% booze by mixing pure ethanol with varied amounts of water.

Pharmacy cotton is very easy to light, but it burns swiftly. You need paper to follow, then very thin wood, followed by less thin, and so on, all dry. Pressing the cotton together lets it burn more slowly but it's difficult to control. Cork burns but not so easily, it can be a step before wood, not an early step. Cotton is also a nice wick. My suggestion: the users of the still had all the material kept dry on site, only the lighters not.

Had the users of the still some wax to seal the jugs? That makes better light that a soaked shirt that is difficult to hold and burns at uncontrolled speed. With a wick, it's also decently easy to light, more so than wood.

How does your superhero organize all that in the dark? Is the chamber with the still less dark?

Offline Enthalpy

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Re: Not a chemist but need story help
« Reply #2 on: August 06, 2019, 08:13:53 AM »
Basta with hypotheses, suppositions and uncertainty: I made an experiment.

37.5% vodka and a wick of paper don't burn. The dry paper burns until the flame reaches the vodka that extinguishes it.

Even with the lighter 20s below the soaked paper, it doesn't burn.

So if your booze is to burn, it must be much more concentrated, even with a wick. I have nothing to experiment further here. Buy some ethanol and dilute it, if carrying on in this direction.

Or could the booze be the first attempt of your hero, and after this fails he succeeds with wax?

Offline Borek

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Re: Not a chemist but need story help
« Reply #3 on: August 06, 2019, 01:14:21 PM »
Can be a matter of technique, lighting up a shot of 40% vodka with matches was my favorite party trick years ago ;)
« Last Edit: August 06, 2019, 04:38:27 PM by Borek »
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Offline Enthalpy

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Re: Not a chemist but need story help
« Reply #4 on: August 07, 2019, 04:52:47 AM »
Grandma's extra-vodka, the very special one stored behind the firewood, that reused banal bottles?  ;D

Offline Enthalpy

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Re: Not a chemist but need story help
« Reply #5 on: August 07, 2019, 04:58:58 AM »
The item easy to light with gum paper would be propane gas. It served to heat the still, a bottle was left.

A kerosene stove too would be decently easy to light with a brief flame. An alcohol stove more so.

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