Nitrous is obtained in one of four ways. You can purchase it in various quantities and purities: small whippits, two inch long tapered cylinders used for dispensing whipped cream (food grade), medical-grade nitrous bulk, or auto-grade nitrous bulk. It is also possible (but REALLY DANGEROUS) to homebrew nitrous through proper chemical reactions. The first is the most common form. Tanks are often difficult to fill, and auto-grade nitrous must be purified before use. As with any drug, it is generally better to purchase nitrous from a trusted source rather than make your own due to the possible chemical impurities. For INFORMATIONAL USE here is the process for nitrous synthesis.
Whippits are small containers of nitrous intended for home use in whipped cream charging bottles. They are tapered metal tubes with a foil seal at the pointed end and look identical to the cannisters for CO2 powered pellet guns. For whipped cream use, the charging bottle is filled with heavy cream and pressurized with the whippit cartridge. The nitrous causes a frothing action upon depressurization. For recreational use, the whippits are either released into the charging bottle, or into a balloon using a cracker. Caution: the gas in whippits, expanding upon release, is extremely cold. It can cause frost burns. Never open whippits anywhere near your face! Whippits are sold under the brand name EZ-Whip, ISI and others. You can find whippits at head shops and grocery stores, particularly gourmet stores. They come in boxes of 12 or 24 and cost roughly $0.50 each.
(We've received one piece of mail claiming that lead (presumably from the seal) is found in whippits. I doubt that something for food use would be permitted to contain lead but perhaps no one has caught on yet? Someone in a chem lab should be able to resolve this with some gas spectography or NMR -- please mail if you're able to do such a thing.)
When we first wrote these pages in 1994 nitrous was lesser known and harder (although not hard) to come by. For this update in 2006, there are now hundred of listings on ebay.
Crackers are the most common method of dispensing nitrous whippits. Crackers are made specifically for nitrous use. They screw around a whippit with a spike puncturing the seal when it is screwed down. The nitrous fills a balloon that is slipped over the end of the cracker.
Crackers can be found at head shops and similar stores. Crackers come in metal and plastic, and a variety of colors. The metal crackers are primarily silver and gold, but sometimes anodized black. People don't seem as personal about their crackers as they are about bongs. Don't buy plastic crackers; the intense cold from releasing nitrous will eventually break them. Expect to pay something like $10 for a good metal cracker. Some states don't sell crackers, in this case you can make your own cracker.
Dr Drew's writers obviously know nothing about nitrous except for what they stole from this website (and others) because they claim that crackers are full of nitrous. This is false: a cracker "cracks" (opens) a whippit by puncturing its foil seal.
Balloons, the heavy "punching bag" sort, can be found at most grocery stores with the kids toys in the cereal section, or near the cake and party supplies. Balloons are easy to conceal and carry. Finally, unlike masks, should you pass out, balloons will not stick to your face.
Unfortunately, balloons also have many shortcomings. The primary problem is that the intense cold from the gaseous expansion freezes the balloon and eventually ruins it. Standard party balloons do not last more than ten times. There is an art to releasing the gas slowly and warming the balloon and cracker. Some people prefer to leave the base of the cracker on the balloon, maintaining that the most damage comes from repeatedly stretching the balloon over the cracker.
Whipped cream charging bottles also dispense the nitrous from whippits. They look just like seltzer bottles, except the spout points straight up rather than at an angle downwards. There is a large jug part, a spout, a handle, and a small screw-in device which holds the whippit. Both types of bottle work equally well; the upwards pointing spout of the charging bottle is slightly easier to put your mouth on. Charging bottles are available from upscale cooking stores like William- Sonoma, bar supply stores, and party supply stores. Some head shops also carry charging bottles. The primary advantages of a charging bottle are that its simple to fill and impossible to spill. There are no worries about freezing gas and breaking balloons. However some people find that the release of gas from a balloon is slower and more predictable than the rapid rush from a bottle. There is no way to be incongruous in a crowd with a charging bottle.
Nitrous tanks are for the more dedicated (ab)users. One analogy made is that whippits are like cans of beer, while a tank is like beer on tap. With tanks there begins to be a real danger of asphyxiation, as people are prone to use things like masks, and regulation of intake becomes difficult to enforce. As with many things, some people have no sense. With anything larger than a cozy group of friends, the best way of using a tank is to keep the tank in a locked room and periodically fill lots of balloons and pass them out. Because nitrous is heavier than air you could fill garbage bags but don't -- someone will stick one over their head and die. Instead go buy one of those giant latex novelty balloons, they're 4' to 6' in diameter and only ~$10 online. You could try the giant mylar balloons too but be careful about overfilling them.
Be aware that tanks of compressed gas are DANGEROUS. If you knock the valve off of a large tank, it will go straight through a wall. Small tanks (~20lbs or ~2' tall) are relatively safe. Please talk to someone with some experience before playing with tanks.
NEVER PUT YOUR MOUTH ON A TANK TAP. YOU WILL FREEZE YOUR VOCAL CORDS OR POSSIBLY POP YOUR LUNGS. SERIOUSLY. FILL A BALLOON.
NEVER TAKE A TANK INTO A PARTY. BRING BALLOONS IN.
NEVER OPEN A TANK IN AN ENCLOSED SPACE (car, dorm room, etc).
Empty gas tanks are often found in chemistry labs, or purchased from chemical supply houses, or auto racing stores. The hard part is having your tank filled.
Scientific grade (AA) nitrous is 99.9% pure. It is used for chemical reactions where there can be no contamination from oxygen or nitrogen such as spectrophotometry.
Medical grade nitrous is 99.0% pure. It is obtained from chemical supply houses and gas companies. It has been purified for human use.
Food grade nitrous is found in whippits and catering supply tanks.
Success stories about obtaining nitrous fall into the following categories:
The latter is the best course of action. You need claim that you're a caterer and producing vast amounts of whipped cream, or that you're running an ice cream truck and that you're using the nitrous to chill the cooler. In both cases the deposit for a tank is ~300 $US, but the fill is only ~40 $US (prices circa 1994).
Nitrous is used to speed engines for auto racing. High performance racing shops sell the tanks and feeder units to inject nitrous into the carberators. They also sell bulk nitrous gas. But there is a catch: the gas is mixed, generally (always?) with hydrogen sulfide (the rotten egg gas) which will make anyone breathing it VERY ill. (There is evidence that hydrogen sulfide can cause permanent damage to lung tissues and nerve endings.)
One reader writes in:
... hydrogen sulfide (H2S) is one of the most dangerous neurtoxins there is. There have been reports of individuals going into a sewer and not testing for H2S and being DOA after only one lung full. It is incredibly nasty. It also causes olfactory overload with only one breath. In other words, you get one smell then you can't smell it any more so you don't realize that you are on your merry way to the grave. I would never do the auto grade of nitrous but if that is the way someone wants to go then bubble it through a lye (get it from the hardware store) and water - about 1 heaping tablespoon per qt. of water.
So before you can inhale racing grade nitrous, you must filter out the hydrogen sulfide. This is done by bubbling the gas through a strong basic solution: either lye or baking soda. Here are some comments on purification of nitrous. If you aren't a chemistry major, you should probably not fool around with auto grade nitrous.