“I wasn’t expecting it to be used on a big YouTube channel,” he told me over the phone. When he was a kid, Styropyro—whose real name is Drake Anthony—and a friend used to create a gooey flammable paste by dissolving styrofoam in acetone. I did the same with gasoline and old cups from the fast food chain Sonic.
It’s a fun, if dangerous, hobby. The kind of thing lots of adolescent boys do. Anthony outgrew the name, but never outgrew a love of science and chemistry. From the small town of Goodfield, Illinois (population of about 700), Anthony posts videos of his science experiments on YouTube.
Most of them involve lasers—my favorite is the 200w laser bazooka he built from old DLP television projectors and lithium ion batteries. Wearing a welding mask, Anthony sweeps the bright light across a room and uses the focused lasers to pop balloons, scorch wood, and burn through a computer case.
Anthony’s pyrotechnic shenanigans have landed him content strikes from YouTube, which took issues with a series of videos he made where he pulled recipes from a 1933 chemistry book and tested them. “I am a chemist,” he said. “I have a degree in chemistry so I'm qualified to do this stuff … but if I were to get one more strike against my account, my channel would have been deleted. When you remove those kinds of videos, there’s going to be less kids who are going to get interested in science.”
Ever since he was a kid, Anthony loved science and chemistry. But he especially loved lasers.
“When I was 12, I learned about lasers in science class,” he said. “And it was you know, very very simple terms, but I found this stuff interesting and so I went home and did some reading online.” Anthony ordered one of the laser pointers and quickly got bored of it. He wanted more power, so he stripped the thing down and tried to enhance it, but he broke it.
Undeterred, he tried again. He saved up his money over a few months and ordered another green laser pointer. “I was able to take that one apart and actually make it a little bit stronger,” he said. “From there I started tearing apart DVD burners and computer trying to get laser parts and from there on I just kept building bigger and bigger lasers and I learned a lot doing those kinds of experiments.”
Anthony’s dad is a general contractor and his mother is a nurse and, when he was a kid, a substitute teacher. When he was young, Anthony’s parents loved that he was interested in science but worried he was using that science to light things on fire and blow stuff up. “Before I got into lasers, I got into chemistry and pyrotechnics and they were pretty concerned about that,” he said.
But that all changed when Anthony’s mother brought home a chemistry test from one of the classes she was subbing. Anthony easily answered the test’s questions correctly. “She saw that I wasn’t just blindly doing this stuff, I was reading into everything and I was very aware of the safety involved,” he said. “They were still concerned, but they were supportive of me learning stuff.”
In his videos, Anthony experiments with powerful lasers, liquid nitrogen, and even exotic thermites. But he always does so safely. “I always wear laser goggles,” he said. “The biggest risk with lasers is going blind. One mistake and shoot your eye out and you'll never heal from.”
Even with precautions, accidents happen. “I've taken some laser beams on the hand and I even have a few little scars and burns from working with it, but that's nothing compared to taking a laser in the eye. I had some close calls with my I was doing my early chemistry experiment, that's for sure. But at least on the laser side of things, I didn't I didn't get anything massive.”
As he mentioned, YouTube has served content strikes to some of Anthony’s videos. Anthony appealed the content strikes and got them removed, but the videos are still unlisted and demonetized.
“At YouTube, we are deeply committed to making quality educational content available to learners across the globe,” a YouTube spokesperson told Motherboard. “Videos featuring activities that could lead to serious physical injury may be age-restricted or removed altogether, but as is the case with all our policies, context matters. Videos accompanied by sufficient educational, documentary, or scientific context are allowed. When videos are flagged to us human reviewers evaluate them and remove videos that violate our Guidelines. We also give creators the ability to appeal if they think a video was mistakenly removed.”
For Anthony, it’s all about the love of science. He grew up in a small town and the internet was his window to the world.
He sees his YouTube channel as a way to pass on that love of learning and science to another generation. “If I didn’t have the internet growing up, I wouldn’t have been introduced to these hobbies,” he said. I would have definitely still had an interest in in things like science and chemistry but it's very unlikely that I would have been doing all these kinds of experiments because almost everything that I read was online. I'm not even sure what I'd be doing now.”