Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Nitrogen On Ice

So an 18-year-old British girl is recovering from having her stomach surgically removed after enjoying an unusual birthday drink. A Jagermeister cocktail laced with liquid nitrogen.

I'm no stranger to nitrogen. Though I can't recall drinking it with alcohol (plain old Jagermeister was enough for us back then), I did work with it as a chemistry demonstrationist at the science center in my hometown. I was "Naughty Nina and her Nitrogen."

I did mostly harmless things with it, like freezing roses by dipping them into a container of N (the chemical symbol for nitrogen) in its liquid form. The rose would freeze instantly and then I could smash it like a crystal glass to the oo's and aw's of the rapt audience. I also did strange things to balloons: the air inside them would shrink after being exposed to the cold ... then magically expand again once the balloon was removed and the air warmed up. Not so many oo's for that one. More like ooooh, okay's.

Of course, my lab partners - the evil genius and the comedian - had other experiments in mind. Using liquid nitrogen, they tried reanimating dead tissue with a laboratory mouse. Um ... I won't get into the details, but suffice it to say Dr. Frankenstein and/or PETA would not have been impressed.

Nitrogen is colorless, odorless and mostly inert - meaning it's not volatile or reactive. Unlike hydrogen let's say, it won't explode when ignited. But it can freeze human tissue and - as we've learned, stomachs. Domestically, it's used in everything from ice cream making to concert fog machines and, occasionally, drinks.

As harmless as it is, the tendrils of gas as the liquid evaporates look very dangerous. I remember the boys picking me up for work that summer and in the back of the truck there'd be this big dewar (an enormous metal keg) overflowing with burbles and smoke. It was completely safe, but it looked ready to usher in WWIII. The worried look my mother would get on her face when she'd see me off in the morning was priceless. It almost made up for all the nasty drunks she took out on me as a kid.

Almost.

Anyway, the girl who lost her tummy is Gaby Scanlon. She had two nitrogen cocktails on her 18th birthday and minutes later started complaining of severe stomach pain. The bartender had told her the N might give her a gassy feeling, but he neglected to mention, oh ...  the goddamn hole she'd get in her stomach!! 

Because one can't actually consume nitrogen. It's waaaaay too cold (−196 °C or −321 °F). It will instantly freeze anything it touches. Having personally witnessed what it does to roses (and mice) I'd say the safest thing to do is just use friggin' ice in your drinks ... or, for the theatrical, at least wait until the gas/smoke has dissipated before drinking. That way you know the N has evaporated - in the case of liquid - or dissolved completely, because solid nubs are sometimes used in drinks, too.

As for Gaby, she's incensed at an industry aiming these possibly dangerous drinks at young folk. Her life is different now. Her esophagus has been connected straight to her small intestine. Apparently, she'll never feel hunger again. She'll have to take vitamin supplements (certain nutrients are absorbed by the stomach, not the gut) and eat smaller meals, but otherwise digestion should be normal. (I imagine - normal-ish would be a better way for people with actual stomachs to define it.)

Hmmmm ... I wonder if this is what's behind all those 'lose 5 inches of belly fat' ads that pop up everywhere. "Have a nitrogen cocktail! Lose the stomach ... and the inches just melt away!"

Sources:

Read more about Nitro Girl's Nightmare
Or Nitro-Geek 101 at Wikipedia.