A new school term has started here, and for me this year that’s meant more chemistry experiments – hurrah!
Okay, actually round-bottomed flasks
The other day it was time for the famous Tollens’ reaction. For those that don’t know, this involves a mixture of silver nitrate, sodium hydroxide and ammonia (which has to be freshly made every time as it doesn’t keep). Combine this concoction with an aldehyde in a glass container and warm it up a bit and it forms a beautiful silver layer on the glass. Check out my lovely silver balls!
This reaction is handy for chemists because the silver mirror only appears with aldehydes and not with other, similar molecules (such as ketones). It works because aldehydes are readily oxidised or, looking at it the other way round, the silver ions (Ag+) are readily reduced by the aldehyde to form silver metal (Ag) – check out this Compound Interest graphic for a bit more detail.
But this is not just the story of an interesting little experiment for chemists. No, this is a story of chemistry, biochemistry, physics, astronomy, and artisan glass bauble producers. Ready? Let’s get started!
Bernhard Tollens (click for link to image source)
The reaction is named after Bernhard Tollens, a German chemist who was born in the mid-19th century. It’s one of those odd situations where everyone – well, everyone who’s studied A level Chemistry anyway – knows the name, but hardly anyone seems to have any idea who the person was.
Tollens went to school in Hamburg, Germany, and his science teacher was Karl Möbius. No, not the Möbius strip inventor (that was August Möbius): Karl Möbius was a zoologist and a pioneer in the field of ecology. He must have inspired the young Tollens to pursue a scientific career, because after he graduated Tollens first completed an apprenticeship at a pharmacy before going on to study chemistry at Friedrich Wöhler’s laboratory in Göttingen. If Wöhler’s name seems familiar it’s because he was the co-discoverer of beryllium and silicon – without which the electronics I’m using to write this article probably wouldn’t exist.
After he obtained his PhD Tollens worked at a bronze factory, but it wasn’t long before he left to begin working with none other than Emil Erlenmeyer – yes, he of the Erlenmeyer flask, otherwise known as… the conical flask. (I’ve finally managed to get around to mentioning the piece of glassware from which this blog takes its name!)
It seems though that Tollens had itchy feet, as he didn’t stay with Erlenmeyer for long, either. He worked in Paris and Portugal before eventually returning to Göttingen in 1872 to work on carbohydrates, going on to discover the structures of several sugars.
Table sugar is sucrose, which doesn’t produce a silver mirror with Tollens’ reagent
All of the monosaccharides will produce a positive result with Tollens’ reagent (even when their structures don’t appear to contain an aldehyde group – this gets a bit complicated but check out this link if you’re interested). However, sucrose does not. Which means that Tollens’ reagent is quick and easy test that can be used to distinguish between glucose and sucrose.
Laboratory Dewar flask with silver mirror surface
And it’s not just useful for identifying sugars. Tollens’ reagent, or a variant of it, can also be used to create a high-quality mirror surface. Until the 1900s, if you wanted to make a mirror you had to apply a thin foil of an alloy – called “tain” – to the back of a piece of glass. It’s difficult to get a really good finish with this method, especially if you’re trying to create a mirror on anything other than a perfectly flat surface. If you wanted a mirrored flask, say to reduce heat radiation, this was tricky. Plus it required quite a lot of silver, which was expensive and made the finished item quite heavy.
Which was why the GermanchemistJustus von Liebig (yep, the one behind the Liebig condenser) developed a process for depositing a thin layer of pure silver on glass in 1835. After some tweaking and refining this was perfected into a method which bears a lot of resemblance to the Tollens’ reaction: a diamminesilver(I) solution is mixed with glucose and sprayed onto the surface of the glass, where the silver ions are reduced to elemental silver. This process ticked a lot of boxes: not only did it produce a high-quality finish, but it also used such a tiny quantity of silver that it was really cheap.
And it turned out to be useful for more than just laboratory glassware. The German astronomer Carl August von Steinheil and French doctor Leon Foucault soon began to use it to make telescope mirrors: for the first time astronomers had cheap, lightweight mirrors that reflected far more light than their old mirrors had ever done.
These days, silvering is done by vacuum deposition, which produces an even more perfect surface, but you just can’t beat the magic of watching the inside of a test tube or a flask turning into a beautiful, shiny mirror.
Speaking of which, according to @MaChemGuy on Twitter, this is the perfect, foolproof, silver mirror method:
° Place 5 cm³ 0.1 mol dm⁻³ AgNO₃(aq) in a test tube.
° Add concentrated NH₃ dropwise untill the precipitate dissolves. (About 3 drops.)
° Add a spatula of glucose and dissolve.
° Plunge test-tube into freshly boiled water.
Silver nitrate stains the skin – wear gloves!
One word of warning: be careful with the silver nitrate and wear gloves. Else, like me, you might end up with brown stains on your hands that are still there three days later…
Carbon dioxide is a small molecule with the structure O=C=O
Carbon dioxide has been in and out of the news this summer for one reason or another, but why? Is this stuff helpful, or heinous?
It’s certainly a significant part of our history. Let’s take that history to its literal limits and start at the very beginning. To quote the great Terry Pratchett: “In the beginning, there was nothing, which exploded.”
(Probably.) This happened around 13.8 billion years ago. Afterwards, stuff flew around for a while (forgive me, cosmologists). Then, about 4.5 billion years ago, the Earth formed out of debris that had collected around our Sun. Temperatures on this early Earth were extremely hot, there was a lot of volcanic activity, and there might have been some liquid water. The atmosphere was mostly hydrogen and helium.
The early Earth was bashed about by other space stuff, and one big collision almost certainly resulted in the formation of the Moon. A lot of other debris vaporised on impact releasing gases, and substances trapped within the Earth started to escape from its crust. The result was Earth’s so-called second atmosphere.
ttps://nai.nasa.gov/articles/2018/6/5/habitability-of-the-young-earth-could-boost-the-chances-of-life-elsewhere/” target=”_blank” rel=”noopener”> An artist’s concept of the early Earth. Image credit: NASA. (Click image for more.)
The point being that carbon dioxide is not a new phenomenon. It is, in fact, the very definition of an old phenomenon. It’s been around, well, pretty much forever. And so has the greenhouse effect. The early Earth was hot. Really hot. Possibly 200 oC or so, because these atmospheric gases trapped the Sun’s heat. Over time, lots and lots of time, the carbon dioxide levels reduced as it became trapped in carbonate rocks, dissolved in the oceans and was utilised by lifeforms for photosynthesis.
Fast-forward a few billion years to the beginning of the twentieth century and atmospheric carbon dioxide levels were about 300 ppm (0.03%), tiny compared to oxygen (about 20%) and nitrogen (about 78%).
Chemists and carbon dioxide
Let’s[/caption]Let’s pause there for a moment and have a little look at some human endeavours. In about 1640 Flemish chemist Jan Baptist van Helmont discovered that if he burned charcoal in a closed vessel, the mass of the resulting ash was much less than that of the original charcoal. He had no way of knowing, then, that he had formed and collected carbon dioxide gas, but he speculated that some of the charcoal had been transmuted into spiritus sylvestris, or “wild spirit”.
In 1754 Scottish chemist Joseph Black noticed that heating calcium carbonate, aka limestone, produced a gas which was heavier than air and which could “not sustain fire or animal life”. He called it “fixed air”, and he’s often credited with carbon dioxide’s discovery, although arguably van Helmont got there first. Black was also the first person to come up with the “limewater test“, where carbon dioxide is bubbled through a solution of calcium hydroxide. He used the test to demonstrate that carbon dioxide was produced by respiration, an experiment still carried out in schools more than 250 years later to show that the air we breathe out contains more carbon dioxide than the air we breathe in.
com/P/Priestley_Joseph/PriestleyJoseph-MakingCarbonatedWater1772.htm” target=”_blank” rel=”noopener”> A diagram from Priestly’s letter: “Impregnating Water with Fixed Air”. Printed for J. Johnson, No. 72, in St. Pauls Church-Yard, 1772. (Click image for paper)
Back to Priestle
[/caption]Back to Priestley for a moment. In the late 1800s, a glass of volcanic spring water was a common treatment for digestive problems and general ailments. But what if you didn’t happen to live near a volcanic spring? Joseph Black, you’ll remember, had established that CO2 was produced by living organisms, so it occurred to Priestly that perhaps he could hang a vessel of water over a fermentation vat at a brewery and collect the gas that way.
But it wasn’t very efficient. As Priestly himself said, “the surface of the fixed air is exposed to the common air, and is considerably mixed with it, [and] water will not imbibe so much of it by the process above described.”
It was then that he tried his experiment with vitriolic acid, which allowed for much greater control over the carbonation process. Priestly proposed that the resulting “water impregnated with fixed air” might have a number of medical applications. In particular, perhaps because the water had an acidic taste in a similar way that lemon-infused water does, he thought it might be an effective treatment for scurvy. Legend has it that he gave the method to Captain Cook for his second voyage to the Pacific for this reason. It wouldn’t have helped of course, but it does mean that Cook and his crew were some of the first people to produce carbonated water for the express purpose of drinking a fizzy drink.
You will have noticed that, despite all his work, there is no fizzy drink brand named Priestly (at least, not that I know of).
Joseph Priestley is credited with developing the first method for making carbonated water.
Today, carbonated drinks are made a little differently. You may have heard about carbon dioxide shortages this summer in the U.K. These arose because these days carbon dioxide is actually collected as a by-product of other processes. In fact, after several bits of quite simple chemistry that add up to a really elegant sequence.
From fertiliser to fizzy drinks
It all begins, or more accurately ends, with ammonia fertiliser. As any GCSE science student who’s been even half paying attention can tell you, ammonia is made by reacting hydrogen with nitrogen during the Haber process. Nitrogen is easy to get hold of – as I’ve already said it makes up nearly 80% of our atmosphere – but hydrogen has to be made from hydrocarbons. Usually natural gas, or methane.
This involves another well-known process, called steam reforming, in which steam is reacted with methane at high temperatures in the presence of a nickel catalyst. This produces carbon monoxide, a highly toxic gas. But no problem! React that carbon monoxide with more water in the presence of a slightly different catalyst and you get even more hydrogen. And some carbon dioxide.
Fear not, nothing is wasted here! The CO2 is captured and liquified for all sorts of food-related and industrial uses, not least of which is fizzy drinks. This works well for all concerned because steam reforming produces large amounts of pure carbon dioxide. If you’re going to add it to food and drinks after all, you wouldn’t want a product contaminated with other gases.
Carbon dioxide is a by-product of fertiliser manufacture.
We ended up with a problem this summer in the U.K. because ammonia production plants operate on a schedule which is linked to the planting season. Farmers don’t usually apply fertiliser in the summer – when they’re either harvesting or about to harvest crops – so many ammonia plants shut down for maintenance in April, May, and June. This naturally leads to reduction in the amount of available carbon dioxide, but it’s not normally a problem because the downtime is relatively short and enough is produced the rest of year to keep manufacturers supplied.
This year, though, natural-gas prices were higher, while the price of ammonia stayed roughly the same. This meant that ammonia plants were in no great hurry to reopen, and that meant many didn’t start supplying carbon dioxide in July, just when a huge heatwave hit the UK, coinciding with the World Cup football (which tends to generate a big demand for fizzy pop, for some reason).
Which brings us back to our atmosphere…
Carbon dioxide calamity?
Isn’t there, you may be thinking, too much carbon dioxide in our atmosphere? In fact, that heatwave you just mentioned, wasn’t that a global warming thing? Can’t we just… extract carbon dioxide from our air and solve everyone’s problems? Well, yes and no. Remember earlier when I said that at the beginning of the twentieth century and atmospheric carbon dioxide levels were about 300 ppm (0.03%)?
Over the last hundred years atmospheric carbon dioxide levels have increased from 0.03% to 0.04%
Today, a little over 100 years later, levels are about 0.04%. This is a significant increase in a relatively short period of time, but it’s still only a tiny fraction of our atmosphere (an important tiny fraction nonetheless – we’ll get to that in a minute).
It is possible to distill gases from our air by cooling air down until it liquefies and then separating the different components by their boiling points. For example Nitrogen, N2, boils at a chilly -196 oC whereas oxygen, O2, boils at a mere 183 oC.
But there’s a problem: CO2 doesn’t have a liquid state at standard pressures. It forms a solid, which sublimes directly into a gas. For this reason carbon dioxide is usually removed from cryogenic distillation mixtures, because it would freeze solid and plug up the equipment. There are other ways to extract carbon dioxide from air but although they have important applications (keep reading) they’re not practical ways to produce large volumes of the gas for the food and drink industries.
Back to the environment for a moment: why is that teeny 0.04% causing us such headaches? How can a mere 400 CO2 molecules bouncing around with a million other molecules cause such huge problems?
For that, I need to take a little diversion to talk about infrared radiation, or IR.
Infrared radiation was first discovered by the astronomer William Herschel in 1800. He was trying to observe sun spots when he noticed that his red filter seemed to get particularly hot. In what I’ve always thought was a rather amazing intuitive leap, he then passed sunlight through a prism to split it, held a thermometer just beyond the red light that he could see with his eyes, and discovered that the thermometer showed a higher temperature than when placed in the visible spectrum.
He concluded that there must be an invisible form of light beyond the visible spectrum, and indeed there is: infrared light. It turns out that slightly more than half of the total energy from the Sun arrives on Earth in the form of infrared radiation.
What has this got to do with carbon dioxide? It turns out that carbon dioxide, or rather the double bonds O=C=O, absorb a lot of infrared radiation. By contrast, oxygen and nitrogen, which make up well over 90% of Earth’s atmosphere, don’tabsorb infrared.
CO2 molecules also re-emit IR but, having bounced around a bit, not necessarily in the same direction and – and this is the reason that tiny amounts of carbon dioxide cause not so tiny problems – they transfer energy to other molecules in the atmosphere in the process. Think of each CO2 molecule as a drunkard stumbling through a pub, knocking over people’s pints and causing a huge bar brawl. A single disruptive individual can, indirectly, cause a lot of others to find themselves bruised and bleeding and wondering what the hell just happened.
Like carbon dioxide, water vapour also absorbs infrared, but it has a relatively short lifetime in our atmosphere.
Water vapor becomes important here too, because while O2 and N2 don’t absorb infrared, water vapour does. Water vapour has a relatively short lifetime in our atmosphere (about ten days compared to a decade for carbon dioxide) so its overall warming effect is less. Except that once carbon dioxide is thrown into the mix it transfers extra heat to the water, keeping it vapour (rather than, say, precipitating as rain) for longer and pushing up the temperature of the system even more.
Basically, carbon dioxide molecules trap heat near the planet’s surface. This is why carbon dioxide is described as a greenhouse gas and increasing levels are causing global warming. There are people who are still arguing this isn’t the case, but truly, they’ve got the wrong end of the (hockey) stick.
It’s not even a new concept. Over 100 years ago, in 1912, a short piece was published in the Rodney and Otamatea Times which said: “The furnaces of the world are now burning about 2,000,000,000 tons of coal a year. When this is burned, uniting with oxygen, it adds about 7,000,000,000 tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere yearly. This tends to make the air a more effective blanket for the earth and to raise its temperature.”
This summer has seen record high temperatures and some scientists have been warning of a “Hothouse Earth” scenario.
This 1912 piece suggested we might start to see effects in “centuries”. In fact, we’re seeing the results now. As I mentioned earlier, this summer has seen record high temperatures and some scientists have been warning of “Hothouse Earth” scenario, where rising temperatures cause serious disruptions to ecosystems, society, and economies. The authors stressed it’s not inevitable, but preventing it will require a collective effort. They even published a companion document which included several possible solutions which, oddly enough, garnered rather fewer column inches than the “we’re all going to die” angle.
Don’t despair, DO something…
But I’m going to mention it, because it brings us back to CO2. There’s too much of it in our atmosphere. How can we deal with that? It’s simple really: first, stop adding more, i.e. stop burning fossil fuels. We have other technologies for producing energy. The reason we’re still stuck on fossil fuels at this stage is politics and money, and even the most obese of the fat cats are starting to realise that money isn’t much use if you don’t have a habitable planet. Well, most of them. (There’s probably no hope for some people, but we can at least hope that their damage-doing days are limited.)
There are some other, perhaps less obvious, sources of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases that might also be reduced, such as livestock, cement for building materials and general waste.
Forrests trap carbon dioxide in land carbon sinks. More biodiverse systems generally store more carbon.
And then, we’re back to taking the CO2 out of the atmosphere. How? Halting deforestation would allow more CO2 to be trapped in so-called land carbon sinks. Likewise, good agricultural soil management helps to trap carbon underground. More biodiverse systems generally store more carbon, so if we could try to stop wiping out land and coastal systems, that would be groovy too. Finally, there’s the technological solution: carbon capture and storage, or CSS.
This, in essence, involves removing CO2 from the atmosphere and storing it in geological formations. The same thing the Earth has done for millenia, but more quickly. It can also be linked to bio-energy production in a process known as BECCS. It sounds like the perfect solution, but right now it’s energy intensive and expensive, and there are concerns that BECCS projects could end up competing with agriculture and damaging conservation efforts.
A new answer from an ancient substance?
Forming magnesite, or magnesium carbonate, may be one way to trap carbon dioxide.
Some brand new research might offer yet another solution. It’s another carbon-capture technology which involves magnesium carbonate, or magnesite (MgCO3). Magnesite forms slowly on the Earth’s surface, over hundreds of thousands of years, trapping carbon dioxide in its structure as it does.
It can easily be made quickly at high temperatures, but of course if you have to heat things up, you need energy, which might end up putting as much CO2 back in as you’re managing to take out. Recently a team of researchers at Trent University in Canada have found a way to form magnesite quickly at room temperature using polystyrene microspheres.
This isn’t something which would make much difference if, say, you covered the roof of everyone’s house with the microspheres, but it could be used in fuel-burning power generators (which could be burning renewables or even waste materials) to effectively scrub the carbon dioxide from their emissions. That technology on its own would make a huge difference.
And so here we are. Carbon dioxide is one of the oldest substances there is, as “natural” as they come. From breathing to fizzy drinks to our climate, it’s entwined in every aspect of our everyday existence. It is both friend and foe. Will we work out ways to save ourselves from too much of it in our atmosphere? Personally, I’m optimistic, so long as we support scientists and engineers rather than fight them…
After our conversation ended I remembered something I developed little while ago, after marking a particularly infuriating research homework where a quarter of the class wrote down that Mendeleev was awarded a Nobel prize for his work on the Periodic Table. For the record: he never received the honour. He was recommended for the prize but famously (at least, I thought it was famously!) the 1906 prize was given to Henri Moissan instead, probably due to a grudge held by Svante Arrhenius of Arrhenius Equation fame (it’s a good story, check it out).
Mendeleev was never awarded a Nobel prize.
Does it really matter if a few students believe that Mendeleev won a Nobel prize? That’s not really harming anyone, is it? Maybe not, but on the other hand, perhaps it’s part of a long and slippery slope greased with ‘alternative facts’ which is leading us to, well, shall we say, situations and decisions that may not be in our best interests as a society.
How to encourage students to do at least a little bit of fact-checking? Of course, you could produce a long list of Things That One Should Do to check information, but I reasoned that while students might read such a list, and even agree with the principles, they were unlikely to get into the habit of applying them and probably quite likely to immediately forget all about it.
Instead I tried to come up with something short, simple and memorable, and here it is (feel free to share this):
Fact-checking isn’t easy; it’s VARD
The four points I focused on spell out VARD, which stands for…
V is for verify, which means: can you find other sources saying the same thing? Now, chances are, you can always find something that agrees with a particular piece of information, if you look hard enough. There are plenty of sites out there that will tell you that lemons ‘alkalise’ the body, for example (they don’t), that it’s safe to eat apricot kernels (it’s not) and that black salve is an effective treatment for skin cancer (nope).
However, if you’re reasonably open-minded when you start, chances are good that you’ll find both sides of the ‘story’ and that will, at the very least, get you thinking about which version is more trustworthy.
A is for author. I often hear swathes of content being disparaged purely based on its nature. You know the sort of thing: “that’s just a blog,” or “you can’t trust newspaper articles”. I think this is wrong-headed. What matters more is who wrote that piece and what are their qualifications? I’d argue that a blog post about medical issues written by a medical doctor (for example, virtually anything on the marvellous Science Based Medicine) is likely to be a pretty reliable source. Conversely, there’s been more than one thing that’s made it into the scientific literature which has later turned out to be flawed or even flat false (such as Wakefield’s famous 1998 paper). It’s also worth asking what someone’s background is: Stephanie Seneff, for example, is highly qualified in the fields of artificial intelligence and computer science, but does that mean we should trust her controversial opinions in biology and medicine? Probably not.
You may not always be able to tell who the author is, or have time to dig into their motivations, but it’s nevertheless a good question to keep in the back of your mind.
Be honest: is that story really likely? Or is it just shocking?
R is for reasonableness. Which is a pain to spell or even say, but it’s important so I’m sticking with it. It’s a sense-check. Human beings love a good story, and the best stories have unexpected twists and turns. That’s why medical scare-stories pop up in newspapers with such depressing regularity. No, ketchup isn’t giving you cancer. No, our children really aren’t being poisoned by plastics. But the truth doesn’t always make a good headline. In fact, when it comes to science, the more some ‘exciting finding’ is plastered over news sites, the less you should probably trust it – because the chances are that the exciting version being reported bears almost no resemblance to the researchers’ original conculsions.
Be honest and ask yourself: does this really seem likely? Or would I just like it to be true because it’s a great story?
If a surprising story has just appeared, give it twenty-four hours – chances are if there are major issues with the information someone else will come forward.
D is for date. The obvious situation is when information is so old that it’s been superseded by something else. This is easy: just look for something more recent. However, the other side of this coin is probably more relevant in these days of rolling news and instant sharing of articles: something can blow up at short notice, especially something topical, and it later turns out that not all the facts were known. Take, for example, the famous green swimming pools in the 2016 Olympics, which more than one writer attributed to copper salts in the pool water before the full facts were revealed a few days later. Inevitably, the ‘corrected’ version is far less interesting than the earlier speculation, and so that’s what everyone remembers.
If something controversial and shocking has just appeared, give it twenty-four hours. If there’s something terribly wrong with it, chances are someone will pick up on it in that time.
It’s not easy; it’s VARD
And that’s it: Verify, Author, Reasonableness, Date. It doesn’t cover every eventuality, but if you keep these points in the back of your mind it will definitely help you to separate the ‘probably true’ from the ‘almost certainly bollocks’.
After lots of speculation over the last few months, the names of the new elements were finally announced by IUPAC yesterday. There will now be a five-month public review, ending on 8 November 2016, but it looks likely that these names will be accepted. They are:
113: Nihonium, Nh, from ‘Nihon’, meaning Japan or ‘The Land of the Rising Sun’, home of RIKEN;
115: Moscovium, Mc, in recognition of the Moscow region, where JINR is based;
117: Tennessine, Ts, for the Tennessee region, home of ORNL;
and 118: Oganesson, Og, named after a very important individual*.
New Element Names, by Compound Interest (click image for more info)
This particular inert gas was discovered by an astronomer observing a solar eclipse.
A couple of weeks ago I wrote a (tongue in cheek) post about a very inert gas, nitrogen. Silliness aside though, nitrogen is a bit, well boring. I mean, we’ve known about it for nearly 250 years, it makes up nearly 80% of our atmosphere and it mostly just sits around doing nothing. Even plants, who’ve mastered the spectacular trick of making solid stuff out of sunlight and carbon dioxide, can’t do much with it in its gaseous form (with a few exceptions).
We all learnt what ‘non-renewable’ means in school: it refers to something we’re using up faster than we can ever replace it. Almost anyone can tell you that crude oil is non-renewable. But the thing is, there are alternatives to crude oil. We can use bioethanol, biodiesel and their cousins to power vehicles and provide power. Bioethanol can act as a route to plastics, too. Scientists are also investigating the potential of algae to produce oil substitutes. These alternatives may (at the moment) be relatively expensive, and come with certain disadvantages, but they do exist.
We have no way to make helium. At least, no way to make it in significant quantities (it’s a by-product in nuclear reactors, but there we’re talking tiny amounts). And because it’s so light, when helium escapes into the atmosphere it tends to float, well, up. Ultimately, it escapes from our atmosphere and is lost. Every time you get fed up with that helium balloon that’s started to look a bit sorry for itself and stick a pin in it (perhaps taking a few seconds to do the squeaky-voice trick first) you’re wasting a little bit of a helium.
But so what? We could all live without helium balloons right? If we run out, balloons will just have to be the sinking kind. What’s the problem?
Liquid helium is used to cool the magnets in MRI machines.
The problem is that helium has a lot more uses than you might realise. Cool it to -269 oC – just 4 degrees warmer than absolute zero, the lowest termperature there is – and it turns into a liquid, and that liquid is very important stuff. It’s used to cool the superconducting magnets in MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scanners in hospitals, which provide doctors with vital, non-invasive, information about what’s going on inside our bodies. MRI techniques have made diagnoses more accurate and allowed surgery to become far more precise. Nothing else (not even the lightest element, hydrogen) has a lower boiling point than helium, so nothing else is quite as good for this chilly job. Scientists are working hard on developing superconducting magnets that work at warmer temperatures, but this technology is still in its infancy.
There’s another technology called NMR (nuclear magnetic resonance) which chemists use all the time to help them identify unknown compounds. In fact, MRI was born out of NMR – they’re basically the same technique applied slightly differently – but the medical application was renamed because it was felt that patients wouldn’t understand that the ‘nuclear’ in NMR refers to the nuclei of atoms rather than nuclear energy or radiation, and would balk at the idea of a ‘nuclear’ treatment. Possibly imagining that they’d turn into the Hulk when they went into the scanner, who knows.
Since it works in essentially the same way, NMR also relies on superconducting magnets, also often cooled with liquid helium. Without NMR, whole swathes of chemical research, not to mention drug testing, would run into serious problems overnight.
But if we can’t make it, where does all this helium come from?
The Earth’s helium supplies have largely originated from the very slow radioactive alpha decay that occurs in rocks, and it’s taken 4.7 billion years to build them up. Helium is often found sitting above reserves of natural oil and gas. In fact that’s exactly how the first helium reserve was discovered: when, in 1903, an oil drilling operation in Kansas produced a gas geyser that wouldn’t burn. It turned out that although helium is relatively rare in the Earth overall, it was concentrated in large quantities under the American Great Plains.
Show me the way to… The National Helium Reserve
Of course this meant that the United States quickly became the world’s leading supplier of helium. The US started stockpiling the gas during World War I, intending to use it in barrage balloons and later in airships. Helium, unlike the other lighter-than-air gas hydrogen, doesn’t burn. This made things filled with helium safer to handle and, of course, more difficult to shoot down or sabotage.
In 1925 the US government set up the National Helium Reserve in Amarillo, Texas. In 1927 the Helium Control Act came into force, which banned the export of the gas. At that point, the USA was the only country producing helium, so they had a complete monopoly (personally, I’d quite like to see a Monopoly board with ‘helium reserves’ on it, wouldn’t you?). And that’s why the Hindenburg, like all German Zeppelins, both famously and tragically had to use hydrogen as its lift gas.
Helium use dropped after World War II, but the reserve was expanded in the 1950s to supply liquid helium as a coolant to create hydrogen/oxygen rocket fuel during the Space Race and the Cold War. The US continued to stockpile helium until 1995. At which point, the reserve was $1.4 billion in debt. The government of the time pondered this and ended up passing the Helium Privatization Act of 1996, directing the United States Department of the Interior to empty the reserve and sell it off at a fixed rate to pay off the cost.
Right now, anyone can buy cheap helium in supermarkets and high street shops.
As a result cheap helium flooded the market and its price stayed fairly static for a number of years, although the price for very pure helium has recently risen sharply. This sell-off is why we think of helium as a cheap gas; the sort of thing you can cheerfully fill a balloon with and then throw away. Pop down to a large supermarket or your local high street and you might even be able to buy a canister of helium in the party section relatively cheaply.
The problem is that this situation isn’t going to last. The US reserves have been dramatically depleted, and at one point were expected to run out completely in 2018, although other reserves have since been discovered and other countries have set up extraction plants. It is also possible to extract helium from air by distillation, but it’s expensive – some 10,000 times more expensive. None of these alternatives are expected to really ease the shortage; they’ll just delay it by a few years.
So are helium party balloons truly an irresponsible waste of a precious resource? Well… the helium that’s used in balloons is fairly impure, about 98% helium (mixed with, guess what? Yep, we’re back to nitrogen again!) whereas the helium that’s needed for MRI and the like is what’s called ‘grade A’ helium, which is something like 99.997% pure, depending on whom you ask. Of course you can purify the low-grade helium to get the purer kind but this costs money, which is why grade A helium is so much more expensive.
The National Balloon Association (‘the voice of the balloon industry’ – you can’t help wondering whether that’s a very high-pitched voice, can you?) argues that balloons only account for 5-7% of helium use and that the helium that goes into balloons – which they prefer to call ‘balloon gas’ because of its impurities – is mainly recycled from from the gas that’s used in the medical industry, or is a by-product of supplying pure, liquid helium, and therefore using it in balloons isn’t really a problem.
Dr Peter Wothers argues that helium balloons should be banned.
On the other hand, more than one eminent physics professor has spoken out on the subject of helium wastage. It costs about 30-50p to fill a helium balloon, but Professor Robert Richardson of Cornell University argued (before his death in 2013) that a helium party balloon should cost £75 to more accurately reflect the true scarcity value of the gas. Dr Peter Wothers of Cambridge University has called for an outright ban of them, saying that in 50 years’ time our children will be amazed that we ever used such a precious material to fill balloons.
Is it time to call for a helium balloon boycott? Perhaps, although it will probably take more than one or two scientifically-minded consumers refusing to buy them before we see any difference. Realistically, the price will sky-rocket in the next few years and, as Peter Wothers suggests, filling balloons with helium will become a ridiculous notion because it’s far too expensive.
Will images like this make no sense in the future?
It’s strange to think though, that in maybe 50 years or so the idea of a floating balloon might simply disappear. Just think of all the artwork and drawings that will no longer make sense.
Perhaps this quotation by the late Sir Terry Pratchett is even more relevant than it first appears:
“There are times in life when people must know when not to let go. Balloons are designed to teach small children this.”
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Today I’m writing about a potentially dangerous, but surprisingly rarely discussed, substance. It’s a gas at room temperature, with a molecular mass of 28. It sits next to oxygen in the periodic table, but these two could not be more different. When it was discovered by Daniel Rutherford in 1972 he named it ‘noxious air’. Other scientists called it ‘burnt air’, ‘mephitic air’, and ‘azote’ – from the Greek word meaning lifeless – because animals died when they were exposed to it. Today we call it nitrogen.
Let me tell you more. It’s an industrial chemical which is used to make fertilisers and explosives, and to fill tyres. Does that sound like something that you should be exposed to on a daily basis?
Nitrogen is used to fill aeroplane and car tyres.
Well I’ve got news for you, you are. Nitrogen is in the air around us. That’s right, this gas which, let me reiterate, was discovered when it was found to kill small animals, is all around us. The concentration of it is fairly stable now, but it has increased dramatically in Earth’s past.
A nitrogen molecule. Not actual size.
Breathing air with more than about 0.8 bar partial pressure will make you really ill or even kill you and yet, pure nitrogen is regularly used to package our foods. Those salad bags you thought were so fresh and healthy? Full of pure nitrogen. That nitrogen is obtained by a process known as fractional distillation. Petrol, diesel and bitumen – the stuff used to cover our roads – are produced by exactly the same method.
Nitrogen is invisible, tasteless and odourless, and companies don’t have to label it on their packaging. Some of the more reputable manufacturers do state that their food is ‘packaged in a protective atmosphere’, but since there is no regulation to force companies to include this label, its absence is no guarantee. You could be eating nitrogen-drenched lettuce right now, and you’d have no idea. And for those salad-dodgers out there breathing a sigh of relief, crisps (chips, for my American readers) are also packaged in this stuff.
Nitrogen is often used in over-priced food preparation.
It gets worse. When it’s cooled nitrogen becomes a liquid, and this form is also used in food preparation. Some chefs have famously used it to make gourmet ice-cream. But in its liquid form nitrogen is even more dangerous. It’s extremely volatile. Exposure to liquid nitrogen causes severe and painful burns which can leave permanent scars. People who need to handle it should wear thick, industrial-strength gloves and eye protection. It’s so dangerous that one Australian liquor authority recently ordered bars to stop serving drinks containing liquid nitrogen after a patron became seriously ill.
Surely we should be asking the question: should something this harmful REALLY be involved in food preparation at all, anywhere in the world?
The Food Doll. She knows about this stuff.
Health food campaigners and ‘wellness warriors’ are increasingly setting their sites on this new menace. In an interview, ‘Food Doll’ Eyna Noscience said, “During my research into this stuff I found out that food companies sometimes mix it with carbon dioxide, and we all know that’s killing the ozone layer. We should all be campaigning for better labelling.”
She went on to add: “It’s a pnictogen. I don’t know what that means, but it sounds suspiciously like carcinogen to me. Nothing that unpronounceable can be good for you, right? I always say, if you can’t read it, you shouldn’t be eating it. Or breathing it.”
The spectrum of nitrogen. It’s totally irrelevant but it is pretty.
Cease the Ugly Nitrogen Terror campaigners staged a peaceful demonstration, and were arrested for “offensive slogans” (not shown).
Despite clearly knowing nothing whatsoever about anything, it’s possible that Eyna Noscience has a point. Perhaps consumers should have the choice over whether they want to buy products saturated with nitrogen? The organisation Cease the Ugly Nitrogen Terror certainly think so. They recently held a peaceful demonstration outside a well-known supermarket in London. Several of their supporters, who were holding placards bearing the initials of the organisation, were arrested for allegedly “offensive slogans”. Clearly yet another example of the food industry having far too much power.
What do you think? Should nitrogen be banned from foods? Leave your comments below.
GNU Terry Pratchett.
Note: now, in case it’s not entirely obvious, this post is a joke (I say this because some people have asked me, believe it or not). But truth, as they say, is stranger than fiction. After I wrote this I found out that the ‘Food Babe’, aka Vani Hari, had actually written a post (she has since deleted it, but the internet is great for making it difficult to hide such things) in which she demonstrated a fabulous misunderstanding of chemistry and physics. In particular (from here, 6th paragraph):
“The air you are breathing on an airplane is recycled from directly outside of your window. That means you are breathing everything that the airplanes gives off and is flying through. The air that is pumped in isn’t pure oxygen either, it’s mixed with nitrogen, sometimes almost at 50%. To pump a greater amount of oxygen in costs money in terms of fuel and the airlines know this! The nitrogen may affect the times and dosages of medications, make you feel bloated and cause your ankles and joints swell.”
I don’t know about everyone else, but personally I’d be a bit worried about a 50% oxygen atmosphere, particularly in an aeroplane. Let’s just hope she’s wrong, eh?
But here’s the question: have you been paying attention? Well, have you? Time to find out with The Chronicle Flask’s festive quiz! I haven’t figured out how to make this interactive. You’ll have to, I don’t know, use a pen and paper or something.
Which scientist invented a chemical test that can be used to coat the inside of baubles with silver?
a) Bernhard Tollens
b) Karl Möbius
c) Emil Erlenmeyer
Reindeer eat moss which contains arachidonic acid… but why is that beneficial to them?
a) a laxative
b) an anti-freeze
c) a spider repellant
Which chemical makes crackers and party poppers go crack?
b) silver fulminate
c) nitrogen triiodide
We all like a glass of champagne at this time of year, but what’s in the bubbles?
a) carbon dioxide
What’s the key ingredient in those lovely bath salts you bought for your grandma?
a) calcium carbonate
b) magnesium sulfate
c) citric acid
Which chemical reaction is responsible for both perfectly browned biscuits and crispy, golden turkey?
a) Maillard reaction
b) Hodge reaction
c) Caramel reaction
Question 7) Where are you most likely to find this molecule at this time of year?
a) in a roast beef joint
b) in the wrapping paper
c) in the christmas cake
Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow… but which fact about (pure) water is true?
a) It glows when exposed to ultraviolet light
b) It expands as it freezes
c) It’s a good conductor of electricity
Where are you likely to find this molecule on New Year’s Eve?
a) in a champagne bottle
b) in the party poppers
c) in the ‘first foot’ coal
Who doesn’t love a firework or two on New Years Eve? But which element is most commonly used to produce the colour green?
So how did you do?
Less than 4: D, for deuterium. It’s heavy hydrogen and it’s used to slow things down. Enough said.
4-6: You get a C, by which I mean carbon. Have another slice of coal.
7-8: You’ve clearly been paying attention. B for boring, I mean boron.
9-10: Au-ren’t you clever? Chemistry champion!