by Lada Simek
A long time ago, when I was still teaching chemistry, Rob Weintraub, the owner of New York Scuba showed me a mask that he called ‘the mask from hell’. Neither the original owner, nor he himself, was able to clean it sufficiently to keep it from fogging. He offered it to me as a challenge. I like a challenge and having a small laboratory at my disposal, I thought this would not be a big deal.
There are two extremes of compounds based on their electron arrangement, polar and nonpolar. The rule is that like dissolves like. Polar substances attract and dissolve other polar substances, like alcohol and water. Nonpolar substances like wax do not attract water and dissolve in nonpolar solvents such as gasoline, paint thinner and oil. Since the silicone on the glass is similar in its chemistry to carbon and its compounds, I assumed it was nonpolar and all I needed was a nonpolar solvent to dissolve it and clean the mask. I took the mask to my lab and began experimenting. I did not use toothpaste because it had been tried before. The way that toothpaste works is that it contains an emulsifier (detergent) and a fine abrasive called diatomaceous earth. This consists of the skeletons of millions of microscopic animals which died and landed on the bottom of the ocean floor. I would bypass this gentle system and go to the heavy stuff, pure detergent and volcanic pumice as an abrasive. No effect!
Next I tried one of the most nonpolar substances I knew, carbon tetrachloride. This is a liquid formerly used in the dry cleaning industry, until it was found to be a pretty strong carcinogen and it is no longer available for public use. No effect!
Why not try alcohol? I sure did. I used methyl, ethyl and isopropyl. No effect! I tried ketones, acetone, butanone. No effect!
It was time to try the acids. Hydrochloric, with a pH of one had, you guessed it — no effect! Next I tried acetic acid. At 5% solution it is called vinegar, but I tried some 60% which smelled so strong it would knock a buzzard off a shit wagon. No effect!
THIS MASK HAS TO DIE! I had some concentrated nitric acid which is such a strong oxidizer it can start a fire on contact with organic substances. IT COULD DISSOLVE A PENNY IN 30 SECONDS! I tried it on the mask not caring if it will survive or not. No effect!
I ended up taking the mask back to Rob, who probably burned it at the stake. In the words of W.C. Fields: “If at first you don’t succeed. Try and try again. Then quit. No sense making a fool out of yourself.”
by Lada Simek
I am a former chemistry teacher, parachuting and scuba instructor, dive boat captain and senior director of Beneath The Sea as well as author about the marine world.