How many scientists does it take to discover five elements? More than you might think…

My last post chronicled (see what I did there?) a meandering stroll through all 118 elements in the periodic table. As I read through all the pieces of that thread, I kept wanting to find out more about some of the stories. This is the international year of the periodic table, after all — what better time to go exploring?

But, here’s the thing: 118 is a lot. It took ages even just to collect all the (mostly less than) 280-character tweets together. Elemental stories span the whole of human existence and are endlessly fascinating, but telling all of them in any kind of detail would take whole book (not a small one, either) and would be a project years in the making. So, how about instead having a look at some notable landmarks? A sort of time-lapse version of elemental history and discovery, if you will…

Carbon

The word “carbon” comes from the Latin “carbo”, meaning coal and charcoal.

Let’s begin the story with carbon: fourth most abundant element in the universe and tenth most abundant in the Earth’s crust (give or take). When the Earth first formed, about 4.54 billion years ago, volcanic activity resulted in an atmosphere that was mostly carbon dioxide. The very earliest forms of life evolved to use carbon dioxide through photosynthesis. Carbon-based compounds make up the bulk of all life on this planet today, and carbon is the second most abundant element in the human body (after oxygen).

When we talk about discovering elements, our minds often leap to “who”. But, as we’ll see throughout this journey, that’s never an entirely straightforward question. The word “carbon” comes from the Latin carbo, meaning coal and charcoal. Humans have known about charcoal for many thousands of years — after all, if you can make a fire, it’s not long before you start to wonder if you can do something with this leftover black stuff. We’ll never know who first “discovered” carbon. But we can be sure of one thing: it definitely wasn’t an 18th century European scientist.

Diamond is a form of carbon used by humans for over 6000 years.

Then there are diamonds, although of course it took people a bit longer to understand how diamonds and other forms of carbon were connected. Human use of diamonds may go back further than we imagine, too. There’s evidence that the Chinese used diamonds to grind and polish ceremonia tools as long as 6,000 years ago.

Even the question of who first identified carbon as an element isn’t entirely straightforward. In 1722, René Antoine Ferchault de Réaumur demonstrated that iron was turned into steel by absorbing some substance. In 1772, Lavoisier showed for the first time that diamonds could burn (contrary to a key plot point in a 1998 episode of Columbo).

In 1779, Scheele demonstrated that graphite wasn’t lead, but rather was a form of charcoal that formed aerial acid (today known as carbonic acid) when it was burned and the products dissolved in water. In 1786 Claude Louis Berthollet, Gaspard Monge and C. A. Vandermonde again confirmed that graphite was mostly carbon, and in 1796, Smithson Tennant showed that burning diamond turned limewater milky — the established test for carbon dioxide gas — and argued that diamond and charcoal were  chemically identical.

Even that isn’t quite the end of the story: fullerenes were discovered 1985, and Harry Kroto, Robert Curl, and Richard Smalley were awarded a Nobel Prize for: “The discovery of carbon atoms bound in the form of a ball” in 1996.

Type “who discovered carbon” into a search engine and Lavoisier generally appears, but really? He was just one of many, most of whose names we’ll never know.

Zinc

Brass, an alloy of zinc, has been used for thousands of years.

Now for the other end of the alphabet: zinc. It’s another old one, although not quite as old as carbon. Zinc’s history is inextricably linked with copper, because zinc ores have been used to make brass alloys for thousands of years. Bowls made of alloyed tin, copper and zinc have been discovered which date back to at least 9th Century BCE, and many ornaments have been discovered which are around 2,500 years old.

It’s also been used in medicine for a very long time. Zinc carbonate pills, thought to have been used to treat eye conditions, have been found on a cargo ship wrecked off the Italian coast around 140 BCE, and zinc is mentioned in Indian and Greek medical texts as early as the 1st century CE. Alchemists burned zinc in air in 13th century India and collected the white, woolly tufts that formed. They called it philosopher’s wool, or nix alba (“white snow”). Today, we know the same thing as zinc oxide.

The name zinc, or something like it, was first documented by Paracelsus in the 16th century — who called it “zincum” or “zinken” in his book, Liber Mineralium II. The name might be derived from the German zinke, meaning “tooth-like” — because crystals of tin have a jagged, tooth-like appearance. But it could also suggest “tin-like”, since the German word zinn means tin. It might even be from the Persian word سنگ, “seng”, meaning stone.

These days, zinc is often used as a coating on other metals, to prevent corrosion.

P. M. de Respour formally reported that he had extracted metallic zinc from zinc oxide in 1668, although as I mentioned above, in truth it had been extracted centuries before then. In 1738, William Champion patented a process to extract zinc from calamine (a mixture of zinc oxide and iron oxide) in a vertical retort smelter, and Anton von Swab also distilled zinc from calamine in 1742.

Despite all that, credit for discovery of zinc usually goes to Andreas Marggraf, who’s generally considered the first to recognise zinc as a metal in its own right, in 1746.

Helium

Evidence of helium was first discovered during a solar eclipse.

Ironically for an element which is (controversially) used to fill balloons, helium’s discovery is easier to pin down. In fact, we can name a specific day: August 18, 1868. The astronomer Jules Janssen was studying the chromosphere of the sun during a total solar eclipse in Guntur, India, and found a bright, yellow line with a wavelength of 587.49 nm.

In case you thought this was going to be simple, though, he didn’t recognise the significance of the line immediately, thinking it was caused by sodium. But then, later the same year, Norman Lockyer also observed a yellow line in the solar spectrum — which he concluded was caused by an element in the Sun unknown on Earth. Lockyer and Edward Frankland named the element from the Greek word for the Sun, ἥλιος (helios).

Janssen and Lockyer may have identified helium, but they didn’t find it on Earth. That discovery was first made by Luigi Palmieri, analysing volcanic material from Mount Vesuvius in 1881. And it wasn’t until 1895 that William Ramsay first isolated helium by treating the mineral cleveite (formula UO2) with acid whilst looking for argon.

Mendeleev’s early versions of the periodic table, such as this one from 1871, did not include any of the noble gases (click for image source).

Interestingly, Mendeleev’s 1869 periodic table had no noble gases as there was very little evidence for them at the time. When Ramsay discovered argon, Mendeleev assumed it wasn’t an element because of its unreactivity, and it was several years before he was convinced that any of what we now call the noble gases should be included. As a result, helium didn’t appear in the periodic table until 1902.

Who shall we say discovered helium? The astronomers, who first identified it in our sun? Or the chemists, who managed to collect actual samples on Earth? Is an element truly “discovered” if you can’t prove you had actual atoms of it — even for a brief moment?

Francium

So far you may have noticed that all of these discoveries have been male dominated. This is almost certainly not because women were never involved in science, as there are plenty of records suggesting that women often worked in laboratories in various capacities — it’s just that their male counterparts usually reported the work. As a result the men got the fame, while the women’s stories were, a lot of the time, lost.

Marguerite Perey discovered francium (click for image source).

Of course, the name that jumps to mind at this point is Marie Curie, who famously discovered polonium and radium and had a third element, curium, named in honour of her and her husband’s work. But she’s famous enough. Let’s instead head over to the far left of the periodic table and have a look at francium.

Mendeleev predicted there ought to be an element here, following the trend of the alkali metals. He gave it the placeholder name of eka-caesium, but its existence wasn’t to be confirmed for some seventy years. A number of scientists claimed to have found it, but its discovery is formally recorded as having been made in January 1939 by Marguerite Perey. After all the previous failures, Perey was incredibly meticulous and thorough, carefully eliminating all possibility that the unknown element might be thorium, radium, lead, bismuth, or thallium.

Perey temporarily named the new alkali metal actinium-K (since it’s the result of alpha decay of 227Ac), and proposed the official name of catium (with the symbol Cm), since she believed it to be the most electropositive cation of the elements.

But the symbol Cm was assigned to curium, and Irène Joliot-Curie, one of Perey’s supervisors, argued against the name “catium”, feeling it suggested the element was something to do with cats. Perey then suggested francium, after her home country of France, and this was officially adopted in 1949.

A sample of uraninite containing perhaps 100,000 atoms of francium-223 (click for image source).

Francium was the last element to be discovered in nature. Trace amounts occur in uranium minerals, but it’s incredibly scarce. Its most stable isotope has a half life of just 22 minutes, and bulk francium has never been observed. Famously, there’s at most 30 g of francium in the Earth’s crust at any one time.

Of all the elements I’ve mentioned, this is perhaps the most clear-cut case. Perey deservedly takes the credit for discovering francium. But even then, she wouldn’t have been able to prove so conclusively that the element she found wasn’t something else had it not been for all the false starts that came before. And then there are all the other isotopes of francium, isolated by a myriad of scientists in the subsequent years…

Tennessine

All of which brings us to one of the last elements to be discovered: tennessine (which I jokingly suggested ought to be named octarine back in 2016). As I mentioned above, francium was the last element to be discovered in nature: tessessine doesn’t exist on Earth. It has only ever been created in a laboratory, by firing a calcium beam into a target made of berkelium (Bk) and smashing the two elements together in a process called nuclear fusion.

Element 117, tennessine, was named after Tennessee in the USA.

Like tennessine, berkelium isn’t available on Earth and had to be made in a nuclear reactor at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) in Tennessee — the reason for the new element’s name. One of the scientists involved, Clarice E. Phelps, is believed to be the first African American to discover a chemical element in recent history, having worked on the purification of the 249Bk before it was shipped to Russia and used to help discover element 117.

Tennessine’s discovery was officially announced in Dubna in 2010 — the result of a Russian-American collaboration — and the name tennessine was officially adopted in November 2016.

Who discovered it? Well, the lead name on the paper published in Physical Review Letters is Yuri Oganessian (for whom element 118 was named), but have a look at that paper and you’ll see there’s a list of over 30 names, and that doesn’t even include all the other people who worked in the laboratories, making contributions as part of their daily work.

From five to many…

There’s a story behind every element, and it’s almost always one with a varied cast of characters.

As I said at the start, when we talk about discovering elements, our minds often leap to “who” — but they probably shouldn’t. Scientists really can’t work entirely alone: collaboration and communication are vital aspects of science, because without them everyone would have to start from scratch all the time, and humans would never have got beyond “fire, hot”. As Isaac Newton famously said in a letter in 1675: “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”

There’s a story behind every element, and it’s almost always one with a varied cast of characters.


This post was written by with the help of Kit Chapman (so, yes: it’s by Kit and Kat!). Kit’s new book, ‘Superheavy: Making and Breaking the Periodic Table‘, will be published by Bloomsbury Sigma on 13th June.


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Element Tales: A Meandering Stroll Around 118 Elements

On 7th Feb this year Mark Lorch, a chemist and science communicator at the University of Hull, had the idea to start an element association game. Could a determined bunch of Twitter chemists find a path through all 118 elements of the periodic table in honour of Periodic Table Day and the International Year of the Periodic Table?

It turned out that they could! #ElementTales started with mendelevium, and meandered — avoiding a few forks — all the way to gadolinium. Some of the links are funny, some are tenuous, and a lot refer to fascinating bits of chemistry trivia.

It seemed a shame not to preserve the final thread somehow. Each of the entries below is headed with a link to the original tweet — just in case you’d like to find, and follow, the thread yourself.

Without further ado, we present to you…

A meandering stroll around 118 elements

@Mark_Lorch
Hey folks! Who’s up for an element association game for in . The rules: I’ll start with an element, you reply with a story/factoid that links it to another element and so on… No repeats!

An atom of Mendelevium, atomic number 101 (from Wikimedia Commons)

@Mark_Lorch
It’s only fitting to start with number 101 Mendelevium

@Sciencenotscary
Mendeleev designed the first periodic table, which contains every other element, including <spins random number generator> #52, tellurium <blink> I swear that was random.

@Stare_at_Air
That feels a bit like cheating! But tellurium was first discovered in gold ore from Zlatna (a Romanian town named after the Slavic term for gold).

@RyeSci
Gold is one of those lovely elements known to the ancients with a symbol accordingly, Au. My favourite of those is Mercury, Hg from Hydrargyrium or liquid silver Hg.

@chronicleflask
Mercury has a v low MP because its electronic config, [Xe] 5d10 6s2, has all full shells — so it doesn’t form the +ve metal ions & delocalised electrons bonding system as other metals. Also quantum. Zn (zinc) has a low MP for the same reason.
(Side note: see this article for more info on mercury’s liquidity https://www.chemistryworld.com/news/relativity-behind-mercurys-liquidity/6297.article)

@allisontau
Zinc is element 30. Zinc rhymes with sink. If your kitchen sink is broken you call a plumber. Plumbers are called plumbers after plumbum, the Latin word for the element lead (Pb), because the Romans used lead to make pipes.

@Mark_Lorch
Lead in Greek is μολυβδος – Molyvdos which gives use the name of element 42, molybdenum.

bacteria@chronicleflask
Molybdenum-containing enzymes are found in bacteria: the simplest and oldest of the living organisms. Living organisms on planet Earth have carbon-based biology. (Time for some non-metals, I thought!)

@Stare_at_Air
This could be taken in so many directions based on carbon‘s chemistry, but I’ll ruin it — carbon reminds me of “Carboniferous”, which sounds like it should have something to do with iron (it doesn’t).

@sciencenotscary
Iron is in the same column of the periodic table as ruthenium, which usually means it should have similar reactivity and chemical behaviour, but it turns out iron is actually completely useless as a catalyst and will not get you a PhD.

@SuperScienceGrl
I’ve had a couple of people mistake my cat’s name, RuPhos, for something to do with ruthenium – it really isn’t, it’s a phosphorus ligand.

@Mark_Lorch
Phosphorus was first extracted from urine by Hennig Brandt in 1669. Later is was discovered that bone is calcium phosphate, which made for a ready supply to feed the match industry.

@David_S_Bristol
Calcium and phosphorous combine in bone along with a substantial amount of magnesium. ~60% of magnesium in the body is in bone. It is essential for a healthy skeleton and reduced magnesium is linked to osteoporosis.

@Stare_at_Air
Magnesium is a key component of Grignard reagents. Grignard shared his Nobel Prize with Sabatier, who in turn received it for his method of hydrogenating organic compounds. Hydrogen.

@drdelusional
Hydrogen, the lightest element, forms the majority of the mass of the Universe. This odorless and tasteless gas combines with Fluorine to result in hydrogen fluoride, a highly reactive acid.
(Side note: corrosive, not (especially) reactive.)

@WildCation
Electronegativity generally increases from left to right across a period, and generally decreases from top to bottom. Fluorine is the most electronegative element on the Pauling electronegativity scale. The LEAST electronegative element is (probably) caesium.

@chronicleflask
Ooh, ooh: Robert Bunsen (he of the burner) and Gustav Kirchhoff discovered two alkali metals, cesium and rubidium, in 1860.

@Stare_at_Air
Rubidium is one of several elements named after a colour (in this case the red lines seen in the emission spectrum), but chromium is associated with so many different colours it’s just named after the Greek word for colour, χρῶμα.

@Mark_Lorch
Amongst the Terracotta warriors were found what appears to be chrome (chromium) plated bronze swords. The alloy was mostly copper and tin, but also contained magnesium, nickel and cobalt.

@sumants
Cobalt is named from ‘kobold’, German for ‘goblin’. This comes from German miners – who were harvesting (cobalt) blue pigments – naming ores ‘goblin ores’ due to the effects of arsenic poisoning when the ores were smelted.

@WildCation
The use of Scheele’s Green, a popular green arsenic-based pigment, caused poisonings in the 19th century from its use in wallpaper, candles, even food. Similarly, in the 1920s, the “Radium Girls” developed cancer from painting watch faces with radium-based pigment.

@Mark_Lorch
Radium was discovered by Marie and Pierre Curie when they extracted it from Uraninite ore. From the same ore they extracted another element which they initially called radium-F. Later Marie renamed if after her home country – Poland. Giving us … Polonium.

@Stare_at_Air
I think the f-block is feeling a bit unloved, so let’s go from the elements that the Curies discovered (Polonium) to the one named after them. Curium.

@ndbrning
Curium is (possibly) the heaviest naturally occurring element (see here: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41557-018-0190-9). The other possible candidate is plutonium.

@Stare_at_Air
Plutonium was indirectly named by a child (the name Pluto for the planet was suggested by an 11-year-old girl). The only other element named by a child is neon, suggested by Ramsay’s son.

@Mark_Lorch
William Ramsay (neon) was also the first person to isolate helium. Prior to this is was known to exist from the spectra of the Sun. Hence the element’s name from Helios… Helium.

@DrMLHarris
Inhaling helium makes your voice squeaky. What happens if you inhale xenon? Researchers at a prestigious US lab decided to find out. Turns out, “heavier than air”=”too heavy for lungs to expel”. The experimenter’s life was saved when he stood on his head.
(Side note: watch what happened when Dr Bunhead of Brainiac tried the same thing.)

@FioraAeterna
Xenon is a really unusual element. In fact, it’s the only pure element that is also a general anesthetic! Yet it’s an unreactive noble gas. Weird, huh? For weird reasons, both Xenon and Argon are now on the anti-doping banned chemicals list.

@Stare_at_Air
People are often surprised to find that the third most abundant gas in the Earth’s atmosphere is Argon. Perhaps similarly surprising is that the third most abundant element in the universe as a whole (at least as far as we know) is oxygen.

@Mark_Lorch
Oxygen is a paramagnetic. If you condense some (it’s a beautiful pale blue liquid) and then place a neodymium magnet above the surface the oxygen jumps up onto the magnet. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bQKVt27SUR0&feature=youtu.be&t=91

@sumants
Neodymium was originally mined as a twinned material known as didymium. Carl Auer von Welsbach fractionally distilled didymium to isolate neodymium (new twin) and the other “green twin”, praesodymium.

@Stare_at_Air
“Green twin” in Greek (πράσινος and δίδυμος) is the base for the name of praseodymium — meanwhile “green twig” in Greek (θαλλός) is the base for the name of thallium, after the bright green spectral line used to identify it.

@sumants
Thallium was extremely popular as a poison in the early 20th century, but it’s mostly banned today. As a rat poison, it worked because it inhibited proteins that contained cysteine, an amino acid that contains… Sulphur.

@ndbrning
Sulfur
is responsible for the tarnishing of silver. The black tarnish is silver sulfide, caused by the metal’s reaction with small amounts of hydrogen sulfide in the air.

@Mark_Lorch
To clean your silver spoons put them in hot water with bicarb of soda & aluminium foil. The bicarb removes the aluminium oxide layer. This leaves the aluminium free to react with the silver sulfide, giving aluminium sulfide & clean silver.

@Stare_at_Air
What is still often called “tin foil” is nowadays almost always made from alumin(i)um. But it used to be made exclusively from tin until the early 20th century (first Al foil came around in 1910, but it took a few decades for it to replace Sn foil).

@sciencenotscary
Tin has two allotropes, a metallic one and a powder. It converts to the powder at Russian-winter temperatures. Napoleon’s troops had tin buttons on their jackets, which then wouldn’t close, and they died of exposure. Russia is the home of Dubna. Dubnium.

@ndbrning
One of the originally proposed names for Dubnium was Nielsbohrium, after Danish nuclear physicist Niels Bohr. Though this proposal wasn’t accepted, Bohr did eventually get an element named after him: element 107, bohrium.

@sumants
One of the two groups to have claimed discovery of bohrium in 1976 was led by Soviet scientist Yuri Oganessian, in whose honour we now have… Oganesson.

@robcarrphoto
Only 5 to 6 atoms of Oganesson have ever been detected. Originally thought to be a gas, computational chemistry revealed it would be a solid due to relativistic effects. Special & General Relativity were discovered by Albert Einstein, for whom Einsteinium was named.

@Stare_at_Air
Einstein (Einsteinium) famously developed his theory of relativity while working at the patent office. The first element to be patented was Americium.

@Mark_Lorch
Americium is created by bombarding uranium or plutonium with neutrons. It was first made by Seaborg (from Berkeley) in 1944 as part of the Manhattan project. Soooo many ways to go from here, but I’m going with… Seaborgium.

@Stare_at_Air
Shortly after the ACS announced 106 to be Sg (Seaborgium) in 1994, resolved not to allow names based on living people. Until it gave way about a year later, the IUPAC name for 106 was rutherfordium. In 1997, this name was instead assigned to element 104… Rutherfordium.

@chronicleflask
Rutherfordium was named after Ernest Rutherford, prob. most famous for the Rutherford atomic model developed after Geiger & Marsden’s gold foil expt. But he also carried out research into nuclear reaction bet. nitrogen & alpha particles.

@sciencenotscary
Nitrogen is usually thought of as being mostly inert an unreactive, until you make it an azide. Sodium azide is what inflates your car’s airbag in time to stop your head smacking the steering wheel.

@Mark_Lorch
After my grandpa died I helped clear his flat, over the years he had stashed various chemicals including 1/2kg of Na (sodium), KCN & conc HCl. To this day I shudder to think what might have been if I hadn’t been there to stop my family chucking it all down the sink. Chlorine.
(Side note: read more about that story here http://www.chemistry-blog.com/2013/04/18/chemical-nostalgia-my-grandfathers-lethal-legacy/)

@robcarrphoto
In organic chemistry lab, we used a lot of HCl (chlorine) of organic reactions, making salts, etc. But when I think of the Chemistry building, I think of bromine. The building smelled like bromine. The set of Beilstein books smelled like bromine.

@Mark_Lorch
Two of the elements stink. Bromine means “stench” and osmium means “smells”.

@ndbrning
Osmium is used in an alloy to make the tips of fountain pens hard and wear-resistant. In the past, iridium was used for this purpose, and sometimes the tipping material is still referred to as ‘iridium’ despite the element’s absence.

@Stare_at_Air
Not only was iridium discovered in the residue from trying to dissolve (impure) platinum, but Pt-Ir alloys are very useful, being both hard and chemically stable. The prototype kilogram is made of Pt-Ir, though a new definition of the kg comes in in May.

@sumants
The Pt-Ir (platinum) alloy was also used to make the prototype meter bar, which was replaced by a measure based on an electron transition within a Kr-86 atom. Krypton.

@sumants
While we’re going on about defining lengths, the Kr-86 (krypton) standard also redefined the ångström as 0.1nm, making obsolete the previous reference based on the spectral line of… cadmium.

@ndbrning
Cadmium is used in nickel-cadmium (Ni-Cd) rechargeable AA batteries. Due to cadmium’s toxicity, their sale has been banned in the EU for most purposes since 2006. They’ve been supplanted by another type of nickel-based battery, nickel metal hydride (NiMH).

@drdelusional
Breithauptite or NiSb (nickel) is a pale copper red colored mineral named after Johann Friedrich August Breithaupt, a Saxon Mineralogist. Antimony.

@chronicleflask
Antimony compounds have been powdered for use in medicine and cosmetics for thousands of years, often known by the Arabic name, kohl. Titanium dioxide is another common additive in makeup and sunscreens.

@Mark_Lorch
Titanium
 causes no immune response, making it an ideal material for implants. However it does slowly corrode in the body. A ceramic made of zirconia (zirconium dioxide) doesn’t suffer from this problem and is now commonly used for dental implants. Zirconium.

@drdelusional
Zirconium alloys are mainly used in nuclear reactors, however these alloys should not contain Hafnium.
(Side note: see this article for more info as to why http://www.iloencyclopaedia.org/part-ix-21851/metals-chemical-properties-and-toxicity/63/zirconium-and-hafnium)

@Stare_at_Air
Hafnium is one of two elements whose name is based on the Latin form of a Scandinavian capital — Hafnia is Copenhagen, while Holmia is Stockholm. Holmium.

@sumants
While working with erbia (grounds for a whole fascinating fork!), Per Cleve isolated two oxides, one which he called holmia (holmium oxide), and the other, thulia, which was identified as thulium oxide. Thulium.

@sumants
Thulium is commonly found in a mineral known as gadolinite, which is named after Johan Gadolin. While it doesn’t have much gadolinium in it, Gadolin wrongly thought a white metal he found in it was aluminium, and not… Beryllium.

@ndbrning
Beryllium is found in the mineral beryl, which emerald and aquamarine are precious forms of. One of the rarest varieties, red beryl, gets its colour from the presence of small amounts of manganese.

@chronicleflask
Manganese is used in REDOX titrations; the colour change from VII (dark purple) to II (pale pink) is very obvious. It’s commonly used to determine the amount of iron present. Another species that turns up in REDOX titrations is iodine/iodide.

@sciencenotscary
Iodine can occur in the form HIO4, periodic acid, which looks like the word for the table we’re talking about but is actually per-iodic. A metallic compound with a very similar electronic structure is perhenate, based on rhenium.

@ndbrning
Rhenium was (possibly) first discovered by Masataka Ogawa in 1908, though he thought he’d discovered element 43, technetium (which wasn’t actually discovered until 1937).

@sciencenotscary
One of only two cis-uranic elements with no stable isotopes, it (technetium) had to be synthesised to be discovered (hence the name). The other one is protactinium.

@ndbrning
The first long-lived isotope of protactinium was discovered by Otto Hahn and Lise Meitner in 1917. 80 years later, in 1997, Meitner became one of only 16 scientists to have an element named after them… Meitnerium.

@MrVanOosterhout
Meitnerium was first produced by German nuclear researchers in 1982, who bombarded a bismuth sample with iron ions. A week of bombardment produced a single meitnerium ion, which lasted all of five milliseconds before decaying.

@chronicleflask
The name bismuth dates from around the 1660s, and it’s unclear where it came from, but maybe from Old High German hwiz (“white”). Like water, liquid bismuth is denser than solid, a characteristic it also shares with the element germanium.

@Stare_at_Air
The name germanium proved controversial, sounding like geranium. Jokingly, angularium was proposed, hiding a translated form of the discoverer’s name (Winkler). Lecoq denied doing something similar when naming gallium (Gaul, but also gallus = rooster).

@drdelusional
Gallium is a low melting solid (melting point ~30°C) and it combines with selenium to form Gallium Selenide which finds applications in nonlinear optics.

@sumants
Selenium was identified by Berzelius and Gahn from pyrite found in the Falun mine in Sweden, which is one of the world’s largest repositories of Copper.

@Mark_Lorch
Eight elements were first isolated from rocks quarried in a the small village of Ytterby in Sweden (same country as copper mine). Four of those elements are named in tribute to the village (ytterbium, erbium, terbium, yttrium)… Ytterbium.

@Stare_at_Air
Near the Ytterby (ytterbium) mine is this sign, discussing Gadolin’s work and the elements found there. It talks about a “tung, svart sprängsten” (in this case the black, heavy gadolinite), but it just reminded me of the origin of the name tungsten!

@drdelusional
A compound of Tungsten, Potassium tungsten oxide, is used in solar energy and water treatment applications… Potassium.

@DrMLHarris
Potassium comes in both fermionic and bosonic isotopes, making it ideal for the study of both Bose-Einstein condensation and cold Fermi gases. Lithium also has this property.

@DrMLHarris
The first molecular Bose-Einstein condensate was created in 2003 by pairing up atoms of fermionic lithium-6 (lithium) to make bosonic Li2 molecules. Fermions are, of course, named after the physicist Enrico Fermi, who also has an element named after him... Fermium.

@sumants
Fermium was discovered in the fallout from a nuclear test, as was einsteinium when some filter papers were exposed to the same fallout. The work happened at the University of California, Berkeley, after which place we have… Berkelium.

@sumants
Berkelium is now synthesized mainly in the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, after which state, we have Element 117… Tennessine.

@DrMLHarris
Tennessine itself was synthesized at the Joint Institute for Nuclear Research in Dubna, Russia. The many contributions of this institute to the Periodic Table were recognized in the name of Element 115… Moscovium.

@sumants
Moscovium naturally underwent alpha emission and created… Nihonium.

DrMLHarris
Nihonium was named after the country where it was discovered, Japan. The discoverers expressed hope that this honour would help the country’s trust in science recover after the meltdown of the reactor at Fukushima, which uses uranium as fuel.

@sumants
Uranium, of course, is named after the planet Uranus. It probably makes sense, then, that its neighbour would be named after the planet’s neighbour, Neptune… Neptunium.

@Stare_at_Air
Despite many previous false claims of having produced element 93, including by Fermi, neptunium was first produced by McMillan and Abelson, at Berkeley Lab (yes, Berkeley again, of course), based in the state of California… Californium.

@sumants
Californium was first synthesized at the Lawrence Berkeley NL, which is named after Ernest Lawrence, after whom we have… Lawrencium.

@Mark_Lorch
Lawrencium is the final member of the actinides. Although it is arguably a member of group 3 along with scandium, yttrium, and lutetium… Scandium.

@sumants
When Mendeleev placed scandium in his periodic table, he had previously predicted its existence, which Per Cleve eventually confirmed. He named it eka-boron, since it would have been similar in its properties to… Boron.

@sumants
Borosil is a brand name that makes borosilicate glass, which is made from a compound oxide of boron and… Silicon.

@DrMLHarris
The A3B group of compounds (A=transition metal, B=anything) wasn’t considered particularly interesting until vanadium silicide, V3Si, (silicon) was found to act as a superconductor at 17K – one of the first Type II superconductors to be discovered… Vanadium.

@chronicleflask
Vanadium is famous for its many colours and oxidation states. The ability to readily change oxidation state makes it a good catalyst, notably for the contact process, used to make sulfuric acid. Another element which is used in catalysis is rhodium.

@ndbrning
Rhodium is used in catalytic converters in cars to remove nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, and unburnt hydrocarbons. Other metals used as catalysts in these converters are platinum and palladium.

@DrMLHarris
In 1989 Pons & Fleischmann claimed to have observed cold fusion via electrolysis of heavy water on a palladium electrode. That was false, but controlled hot fusion in tokamaks is real. Tokamaks use superconducting wire made from an alloy of tin and… Niobium.

@sumants
Niobium is named after Niobe from Greek mythology, and unsurprisingly, the next element one period down is named for her father, Tantalus… Tantalum.

@Mark_Lorch
Tantalum is one of those elements that was discovered in the rocks of Ytterby. Which gives its name to 4 elements, including … erbium.

@sumants
Along with ytterbium and erbium, the same rocks near Ytterby also yielded… terbium.

@DrMLHarris
Today’s main source of Terbium, however, is a mineral called bastnasite, which is named after yet another Swedish mine, Bastnas. This mineral is also a major source of… Cerium.

@Stare_at_Air
Cerium is named after Ceres, a dwarf planet hypothesised to contain an ocean of liquid water. A similar ocean is thought to exist inside Europa, the Jovian moon, named after the figure in Greek mythology. Also named after it is Europe… Europium.

@sumants
Europium(III) oxide is used to activate yttrium phosphors, mostly to create red on television and computer screens. Yttrium is also one of the elements to come out of the Ytterby mine.

@sciencenotscary
Like Yttrium, Indium is also used in screens because of its importance as a component of the semiconductor indium tin oxide.

@ndbrning
Radioactive indium ions have been investigated by researchers for their potential use in radiopharmaceuticals for diagnosis and treatment of tumours. Radioactive actinium ions have been investigated for the same purpose.

@mrfarabaugh
Actinium assumes oxidation state +3 in nearly all its chemical compounds. The Ac(III) ion has an electron configuration that is isoelectronic with Radon.

@sciencenotscary
Radon, being inherently radioactive, is a nuisance background for sensitive particle detectors. Another nuisance is thorium.

@Stare_at_Air
Thorium is named after Thor, the Norse god of thunder, on whom characters in many a comic have been based over the years. Prometheus, a Titan from Greek mythology, has also made an appearance in several comics and gives his name to element 61… Promethium.

@Mark_Lorch
Henry Moseley showed that atomic numbers corresponded to a physical property of the elements. Using this he found that some atomic numbers had no known elements: the gaps were 43, 61 (promethium), 72, 75, 85 (astatine), and 87.

@Stare_at_Air
All the group 17 elements up to and including astatine (“unstable”) are named after their properties (Ts ruined it), but many elements in the rest of the table are too. We still have two of these left — one of them is “hard to get” (though stable)… Dysprosium.

@Mark_Lorch
(Dysprosium) And the other is Barium which is derived from mineral baryte in which it is found. This in turn comes from the Greek βαρύς (barys) meaning heavy.

@DrMLHarris
Even heavier than barium, and much harder to obtain due to its half-life of just 22 minutes, the next element has never been observed in bulk, though like the other alkalis it has been laser cooled and trapped. Step up… Francium.

@Mark_Lorch
Marguerite Catherine Perey (a student of Marie Curie) discovered Francium and named if after her home country. France gets another hat tip in the table in the form of Lutecium which is named from the latin for Paris.

@DrMLHarris
(Lutecium) Another Paris-based discoverer was Paul-Émile Lecoq de Boisbaudran. He discovered three elements. Two of them, gallium and dysprosium, have been done already, but the third was… Samarium.

@DrMLHarris
De Boisbaudran is credited as Samarium‘s discoverer, but a different French chemist, Eugène-Anatole Demarçay, actually isolated the pure metal. Demarçay destroyed his eyesight in a chemical explosion. The godfather of explosive chemistry is Alfred Nobel… Nobelium.

@Stare_at_Air
Nobel (Nobelium) may have set up the Nobel prize because he was worried about being remembered for his contribution to developing more effective weapons. Georgy Flyorov also played a role in weapons research, as he encouraged Stalin to start an atomic bomb project… Flerovium.

@DrMLHarris
(Flerovium) The most dangerous isotope in nuclear fallout, the hazards of which helped to persuade the US, UK and Soviet Union to ban above-ground weapons tests, is strontium-90, which is taken up in the bones… Strontium.

@sumants
One of the popular electrode materials in solid oxide fuel cells is LSM, which is a perovskite (ABO3) in which B positions have Mn, and A slots are occupied by strontium and… Lanthanum.

@DrMLHarris
The name “lanthanum” derives from the Ancient Greek for “to lie hidden.” X-rays are also good at revealing hidden things, from broken bones to chemical structures to black holes. They were discovered by Wilhelm Roentgen, who is honoured with Element 111… Roentgenium.

@sumants
Roentgenium was first created at the Helmholtz Centre for Heavy Ion Research in Darmstadt, from which we have… Darmstadtium.

@sumants
Several elements have been synthesized/discovered at the Helmholtz Center, including meitnerium, roentgenium, darmstadtium, bohrium, and… Hassium.

@sumants
(Hassium) I left out one more element synthesized at the Helmholtz Center: Copernicium.

@sumants
(Copernicium) The Helmholtz Center also helped confirm Element 116, which had been created partly in Dubna, and partly at the Lawrence Livermore NL, after which it was named: Livermorium.

@DrMLHarris
(Livermorium) All of these reactors used to discover ultra-heavy elements require good shielding against radioactivity. Because of its high neutron cross section, one of the elements used in shielding is… Gadolinium.

@Mark_Lorch
YEH!!! 👏 🥳 🎉 That was great fun! Thanks for playing! I honestly wondered if that was even doable!
#ElementTales

Periodic Table by Andy Brunning of Compound Interest (click for more)


Special thanks to Andrea Chlebikova (@Stare_at_Air) for keeping track of which elements had and hadn’t been covered as we went along.

You can also read an article about this project, published in Physics World, by Margaret Harris (@DrMLHarris).

Further thanks to: Mark Lorch, Andrea Chlebikova, Andy Brunning, Steve Maguire, Michael Farabaugh, Margaret Harris and Sumant Srivathsan. Follow the Twitter handle links to find these lovely people and give them a follow.

Remarkable, reticent ruthenium

Ruthenium is rare transition metal belonging to the platinum group of elements

What shall I write about this week, I wonder… how about, apropos of nothing, the element ruthenium? It is the International Year of the Periodic Table after all; there have to be some element-themed posts, right?

Ruthenium has the atomic number 44 (good number, that) and the symbol Ru. It was officially discovered by Karl Ernst Klaus in 1844 (there it is again) at Kazan State University in Russia.

You might remember from school (or possibly from your jewellery) that platinum is really unreactive. What has this got to do with ruthenium? Well, unreactive metals can be found in nature as actual metal, rather than combined with other elements in ores. But it turns out that early “platinum metal” — used by pre-Columbian Americans — wasn’t pure, but was in fact an alloy of platinum with other metals.

Gottfried Osann discovered ruthenium before Klaus, but gave up his claim.

In 1827 Jöns Berzelius and Gottfried Osann dissolved crude platinum from the Ural Mountains in aqua regia: a 1:3 mixture of nitric acid and hydrochloric acid (we’ve met aqua regia before, in a famous story about Nobel Prize medals). Osann was certain that he’d isolated three new metals, which he named pluranium, ruthenium, and polinium, but Berzelius disagreed, and this caused a long-running dispute between the two scientists.

Osann eventually gave up the argument — which was a shame, because he was right. In 1844 Karl Ernst Klaus analysed the compounds prepared by Osann and showed that they did, in fact, contain ruthenium.

Klaus had been studying the insoluble residues left over after platinum extraction from Ural placer deposits. Like many chemists at the time, he tasted and smelled the substances he prepared, and he reported that the ammines of ruthenium had a more caustic taste than alkalis, while the taste of osmium tetroxide was “acute pepper-like” (do not try this at home).

He communicated his discoveries to the Academy of Sciences at St. Petersburg and to Academician G. I. Gess, who reported them on September 13th and October 25th, 1844. Klaus named the new element from the Latin word, Ruthenia, and mentioned Osann’s work, saying:

“I named the new body, in honour of my Motherland, ruthenium. I had every right to call it by this name because Mr. Osann relinquished his ruthenium and the word does not yet exist in chemistry”

ruthenium chloride is sometimes shown as red, but it’s actually black

Klaus died of pneumonia in 1864, and the study of ruthenium in Russia more or less stopped for the best part of seventy years, not restarting until the 1930s. The element is now known to harden platinum and palladium alloys, and is used in electrical contacts as a result. When just 0.1% is added to titanium it forms an extremely corrosion-resistant alloy which is particularly useful in seawater environments.

Ruthenium and its compounds have lots of other uses, too, including cancer treatments and in catalysis. Ruthenium(VIII) oxide, a colourless liquid (just: its melting point is 25 oC) forms brown-black ruthenium dioxide in contact with fatty oils; because of this property it’s used in forensics to expose latent fingerprints.

This Swarovski necklace has been plated with ruthenium

One of the most vibrant ruthenium compounds is the dye, “ruthenium red”, which has been used as a biological stain for over 100 years. It has the complicated formula [Ru3O2(NH3)14]Cl6 and is made by reacting ruthenium trichloride with ammonia in air, which might explain why pictures of ruthenium trichloride sometimes show a red substance, when it’s actually a rather boring black.

One place where you might have come across ruthenium in everyday life is jewellery: the metal’s hardness, high corrosion resistance and unusual, not-quite-metallic grey-black finish make it popular choice. Pure ruthenium is expensive though, so it’s almost always plated onto a cheaper base metal.

And now, one last picture to mark my ruthenium-day: check out my fabulous chemistry-themed birthday cake (thanks, Mum!), made by the Cotswold Cake Room. How amazing is this?

Normally at the end of my blog posts I link to my ko-fi account, but this time, instead, if you’re feeling generous please consider donating to my birthday fundraiser to raise money for Alzheimer’s Research UK.

The fundraiser is running through Facebook, which I appreciate doesn’t suit everyone — if you’d like to donate without going via that particular social network, there’s a link to donate directly here. Do drop me a comment below if you do, so that I can say thank you x


Like the Chronicle Flask’s Facebook page for regular updates, or follow @chronicleflask on Twitter. Content is © Kat Day 2019. You may share or link to anything here, but you must reference this site if you do.

2019: The Year of the Periodic Table

The Periodic Table

2019 is the International Year of the Periodic Table

In case you missed it, 2019 is officially the International Year of the Periodic Table, marking 150 years since Dmitri Mendeleev discovered the “Periodic System”.

Well, this is a chemistry blog, so it would be pretty remiss not to say something about that, wouldn’t it? So, here’s a really quick summary of how we got to the periodic table we all know and love…

Around 400 BCE, the Greek philosopher Democritus (along with a couple of others) suggested that everything was composed of indivisible particles, which he called “atoms” (from the Greek atomos). The term ‘elements’ (stoicheia) was first used around 360 BCE by Plato, although at that time he believed matter to be made up of tiny units of fire, air, water and earth.

Skipping over a few centuries of pursuing what was, we know now, a bit of a dead-end in terms of the whole earth, air, fire and water thing, in 1661, Robert Boyle was probably the first to state that elements were the building blocks of matter and were irreducible but, and this was the crucial bit, that we didn’t know what all the elements were, or even how many there might be.

Antoine Lavoisier wrote one of the first lists of chemical elements.

Antoine Lavoisier (yep, him again) wrote one of the first lists of chemical elements, in his 1789 Elements of Chemistry. He listed 33 of them, including some that turned out not to be elements, such as light.

Things moved on pretty quickly after that. Just thirty years later, Jöns Jakob Berzelius had worked out the atomic weights for 45 of the 49 elements that were known at that point.

So it was that by the 1810s, chemists knew of 50 or so chemical elements, and had atomic weights for most of them. It was becoming clear that more elements were going to turn up, and the big question became: how do we organise this ever-increasing list? It was a tricky problem. Imagine trying to put together a jigsaw puzzle where two-thirds of the pieces are missing, there’s no picture on the box, and a few pieces have been tossed in from other puzzles for good measure.

Enter Johann Döbereiner, who in 1817 noticed that there were patterns in certain groups of elements, which he called triads. For example, he spotted that lithium, sodium and potassium behaved in similar ways, and realised that if you worked out the average atomic mass of lithium and potassium, you got a value that was close to that of sodium’s. At the time he could only find a few triads like this, but it was enough to suggest that there must be some sort of structure underlying the list of elements.

In 1826 Jean-Baptiste Dumas (why do all these chemists have first names starting with J?) perfected a method for measuring vapour densities, and worked out new atomic mass values for 30 elements. He also set the value for hydrogen at 1, in other words, placing hydrogen as the “first” element.

Newland’s table of the elements had “periods” going down and “groups” going across, but otherwise looks quite familiar.

Next up was John Newlands (another J!), who published his “Law of Octaves” in 1865. Arranging the elements in order of atomic mass, he noticed that properties seemed to be repeating in groups of eight. His rows and columns were reversed compared to what we use today — he had groups going across, and periods going down — but apart from that the arrangement he ended up with is decidedly familiar. Other chemists, though, didn’t appreciate the musical reference, and didn’t take Newlands very seriously.

Which brings us, finally, to Dmitri Mendeleev (various other spellings of his name exist, including Dmitry Mendeleyev, but Dmitri Mendeleev seems to be the most accepted one). His early life history is a movie-worthy story (I won’t go into that else we’ll be here all day, but check it out, it’s really quite amazing). When he was just 35 he made a formal presentation to the Russian Chemical Society, titled The Dependence between the Properties of the Atomic Weights of the Elements, which made a number of important points. He noted, as Newlands had already suggested, that there were repeating patterns in the elements, or periodicity, and that there did indeed seem to be connections between sequences of atomic weights and chemical properties.

Dmitri Mendeleev suggested there were many elements yet to be discovered.

Most famously, Mendeleev suggested that there were many elements yet to be discovered, and he even went so far as to predict the properties of some of them. For example, he said there would be an element with similar properties to silicon with an atomic weight of 70, which he called ekasilicon. The element was duly discovered, in 1886 by Clemens Winkler, and named germanium, in honor of Germany: Winkler’s homeland. Germanium turns out to have an atomic mass of 72.6.

Mendeleev also predicted the existence of gallium, which he named ekaaluminium, and predicted, amongst other things, that it would have an atomic weight of 68 and a density of 5.9 g/cm3. When the element was duly discovered by the French chemist Paul Emile Lecoq de Boisbaudran, he first determined its density to be 4.7 g/cm3. Mendeleev was so sure of his prediction that he wrote to Lecoq and told him to check again. It turned out that Mendeleev was right: gallium’s density is actually 5.9 g/cm3 (and its atomic weight is 69.7).

Despite constructing the one thing that every chemist over the last 150 years has spent years of their life poring over, Mendeleev was never awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry. He was nominated in 1906, but the story goes that Svante Arrhenius — who had a lot of influence in the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences — held a grudge against Mendeleev because he’d been critical of Arrhenius’s dissociation theory, and argued that the periodic system had been around for far too long by 1906 to be recognised for the prize. Instead, the Academy awarded the Nobel to Henri Moissan, for his work on isolating fluorine from its compounds (no doubt impressive, not to mention dangerous, chemistry).

Henry Moseley

Henry Moseley proposed that atomic number was equal to the number of protons in the nucleus of an atom.

Mendeleev died in 1907 at the age of 72, just before the discovery of the proton and Henry Moseley’s work, in 1913, which proposed that the atomic numbers of elements should be equal to the number of positive charges (protons) they contained in their nuclei. This discovery would have pleased Mendeleev, who had already suggested, based on their properties, that some elements shouldn’t be placed in the periodic table strictly in order of atomic weight.

After which, of course, came the discovery of the neutron — which would finally clear up the whole atomic mass/atomic number thing — atomic orbital theory, and the discovery of super-heavy elements. The most recent additions to the modern periodic table were the official names, in 2016, of the final four elements of period 7: nihonium (113), moscovium (115), tennessine (117) and oganesson (118).

Which brings us up to date. For now…


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What is Water? The Element that Became a Compound

November 2018 marks the 235th anniversary of the day when Antoine Lavoisier proved water to be a compound, rather than an element.

I’m a few days late at the time of writing, but November 12th 2018 was the 235th anniversary of an important discovery. It was the day, in 1783, that Antoine Lavoisier formally declared water to be a compound, not an element.

235 years seems like an awfully long time, probably so long ago that no one knew anything very much. Practically still eye of newt, tongue of bat and leeches for everyone, right? Well, not quite. In fact, there was some nifty science and engineering going on at the time. It was the year that Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozier and François Laurent made the first untethered hot air balloon flight, for example. And chemistry was moving on swiftly: lots of elements had been isolated, including oxygen (1771, by Carl Wilhelm Scheele) and hydrogen (officially by Henry Cavendish in 1766, although others had observed it before he did).

Cavendish had reported that hydrogen produced water when it reacted with oxygen (known then as inflammable air and dephlogisticated air, respectively), and others had carried out similar experiments. However, at the time most chemists favoured phlogiston theory (hence the names) and tried to interpret and explain their results accordingly. Phlogiston theory was the idea that anything which burned contained a fire-like element called phlogiston, which was then “lost” when the substance burned and became “dephlogisticated”.

Cavendish, in particular, explained the fact that inflammable air (hydrogen) left droplets of “dew” behind when it burned in “common air” (the stuff in the room) in terms of phlogiston, by suggesting that water was present in each of the two airs before ignition.

Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier proved that water was a compound. (Line engraving by Louis Jean Desire Delaistre, after a design by Julien Leopold Boilly.)

Lavoisier was very much against phlogiston theory. He carried out experiments in closed vessels with enormous precision, going to great lengths to prove that many substances actually became heavier when they burned and not, as phlogiston theory would have it, lighter. In fact, it’s Lavoisier we have to thank for the names “hydrogen” and “oxygen”. Hydrogen is Greek for “water-former”, whilst oxygen means “acid former”.

When, in June 1783, Lavoisier found out about Cavendish’s experiment he immediately reacted oxygen with hydrogen to produce “water in a very pure state” and prove that the mass of the water which formed was equal to the combined masses of the hydrogen and oxygen he started with.

He then went on to decompose water into oxygen and hydrogen by heating a mixture of water and iron filings. The oxygen that formed combined with the iron to form iron oxide, and he collected the hydrogen gas over mercury. Thanks to his careful measurements, Lavoisier was able to demonstrate that the increased mass of the iron filings plus the mass of the collected gas was, again, equal to the mass of the water he had started with.

Water is a compound of hydrogen and oxygen, with the formula H2O.

There were still arguments, of course (there always are), but phlogiston theory was essentially doomed. Water was a compound, made of two elements, and the process of combustion was nothing more mysterious than elements combining in different ways.

As an aside, Scottish chemist Elizabeth Fulhame deserves a mention at this point. Just a few years after Lavoisier she went on to demonstrate through experiment that many oxidation reactions occur only in the presence of water, but the water is regenerated at the end of the reaction. She is credited today as the chemist who invented the concept of catalysis. (Which is a pretty important concept in chemistry, and yet her name never seems to come up…)

Anyway, proving water’s composition becomes a lot simpler when you have a ready supply of electricity. The first scientist to formally demonstrate this was William Nicholson, in 1800. He discovered that when leads from a battery are placed in water, the water breaks up to form hydrogen and oxygen bubbles, which can be collected separately at the submerged ends of the wires. This is the process we now know as electrolysis.

You can easily carry out the electrolysis of water at home.

In fact, this is a really easy (and safe, I promise!) experiment to do yourself, at home. I did it myself, using an empty TicTac box, two drawing pins, a 9V battery and a bit of baking soda (sodium hydrogencarbonate) dissolved in water – you need this because water on its own is a poor conductor.

The drawing pins are pushed through the bottom of the plastic box, the box is filled with the solution, and then it’s balanced on the terminals of the battery. I’ve used some small test tubes here to collect the gases, but you’ll be able to see the bubbles without them.

Bubbles start to appear immediately. I left mine for about an hour and a half, at which point the test tube on the negative terminal (the cathode) was completely full of gas, which produced a very satisfying squeaky pop when I placed it over a flame.

The positive electrode (the anode) ended up completely covered in what I’m pretty sure is a precipitate of iron hydroxide (the drawing pins presumably being plated steel), which meant that very little oxygen was produced after the first couple of minutes. This is why in proper electrolysis experiments inert graphite or, even better, platinum, electrodes are used. If you do that, you’ll get a 1:2 ratio by volume of oxygen to hydrogen, thus proving water’s formula (H2O) as well.

So there we have it: water is a compound, and not an element. And if you’d like to amuse everyone around the Christmas dinner table, you can prove it with a 9V battery and some drawing pins. Just don’t nick the battery out of your little brother’s favourite toy, okay? (Or, if you do, don’t tell him it was my idea.)


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A tale of chemistry, biochemistry, physics and astronomy – and shiny, silver balls

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

As readers of this blog will know, the term “sugar” often gets horribly misused by, well, almost everyone. It’s a broad term which very generally refers to carbon-based molecules containing groups of O-H and C=O atoms. Most significant to this story are the sugars called monosaccharides and disaccharides. The two most famous monosaccharides are fructose, or “fruit sugar”, and glucose. On the other hand sucrose, or “table sugar”, is a disaccharide.

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 German chemist Justus 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.

People also noticed how pretty the effect was: German artisans began to make Christmas tree decorations by pouring silver nitrate into glass spheres, followed by ammonia and finally a glucose solution – producing beautiful silver baubles which were exported all over the world, including to Britain.

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…


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No need for slime panic: it’s not going to poison anyone

This is one of my favourite photos, so I’m using it again.

The school summer holidays are fast approaching and, for some reason, this always seems to get people talking about slime. Whether it’s because it’s a fun end-of-term activity, or it’s an easy bit of science for kids to do at home, or a bit of both, the summer months seem to love slimy stories. In fact, I wrote a piece about it myself in August 2017.

Which (hoho) brings me to the consumer group Which? because, on 17th July this year, they posted an article with the headline: “Children’s toy slime on sale with up to four times EU safety limit of potentially unsafe chemical” and the sub-heading: “Eight out of 11 popular children’s slimes we tested failed safety testing.”

The article is illustrated with lots of pots of colourful commercial slime pots with equally colourful names like Jupiter Juice. It says that, “exposure to excessive levels of boron could cause irritation, diarrhoea, vomiting and cramps in the short term,” and goes on to talk about possible risks of birth defects and developmental delays. Yikes. Apparently the retailer Amazon has removed several slime toys from sale since Which? got on the case.

The piece was, as you might expect, picked up by practically every news outlet there is, and within hours the internet was full of headlines warning of the dire consequences of handling multicoloured gloopy stuff.

Before I go any further, here’s a quick reminder: most slime is made by taking polyvinyl alcohol (PVA – the white glue stuff) and adding a borax solution, aka sodium tetraborate, which contains the element boron. The sodium tetraborate forms cross-links between the PVA polymer chains, and as a result you get viscous, slimy slime in place of runny, gluey stuff. Check out this lovely graphic created by @compoundchem for c&en’s Periodic Graphics:

The Chemistry of Slime from cen.acs.org (click image for link), created by Andy Brunning of @compoundchem

And so, back to the Which? article. Is the alarm justified? Should you ban your child from ever going near slime ever again?

Nah. Followers will remember that back in August last year, after I posted my own slime piece, I had a chat with boron-specialist David Schubert. He said at the time: “Borax has been repeated[ly] shown to be safe for skin contact. Absorption through intact skin is lower than the B consumed in a healthy diet” (B is the chemical symbol for the element boron). And then he directed me to a research paper backing up his comments.

Borax is a fine white powder, Mixed with water it can be used to make slime.

This, by the way, is all referring to the chemical borax – which you might use if you’re making slime. In pre-made slime the borax has chemically bonded with the PVA, and that very probably makes it even safer – because it’s then even more difficult for any boron to be absorbed through skin.

Of course, and this really falls under the category of “things no one should have to say,” don’t eat slime. Don’t let your kids eat slime. Although even if they did, the risks are really small. As David said when we asked this time: “Borates have low acute toxicity. Consumption of the amount of borax present in a handful of slime would make one sick to their stomach and possibly cause vomiting, but no other harm would result. The only way [they] could harm themselves is by eating that amount daily.”

It is true that borax comes with a “reproductive hazard” warning label. Which? pointed out in their article that there is EU guidance on safe boron levels, and the permitted level in children’s’ toys has been set at 300 mg/kg for liquids and sticky substances (Edited 18th July, see * in Notes section below).

EU safety limits are always very cautious – an additional factor of at least 100 is usually incorporated. In other words, for example, if 1 g/kg exposure of a substance is considered safe, the EU limit is likely to be set at 0.01 g/kg – so as to make sure that even someone who’s really going to town with a thing would be unlikely to suffer negative consequences as a result.

The boron limit is particularly cautious and is based on animal studies (and it has been challenged). The chemists I spoke to told me it’s not representative of the actual hazards. Boron chemist Beth Bosley pointed out that while it is true that boric acid exposure has been shown to cause fetal abnormalities when it’s fed to pregnant rats, this finding hasn’t been reproduced in humans. Workers handling large quantities of borate in China and Turkey have been studied and no reproductive effects have been seen.

Rat studies, she said, aren’t wholly comparable because rats are unable to vomit, which is significant because it means a rat can be fed a large quantity of a boron-containing substance and it’ll stay in their system. Whereas a human who accidentally ingested a similar dose would almost certainly throw up. Plus, again, this is all based on consuming substances such as borax, not slime where the boron is tied up in polymer chains. There really is no way anyone could conceivably eat enough slime to absorb these sorts of amounts.

These arguments aside, we all let our children handle things that might be harmful if they ate them. Swallowing a whole tube of toothpaste would probably give your child an upset stomach, and it could even be dangerous if they did it on a regular basis, but we haven’t banned toothpaste “just in case”. We keep it out of reach when they’re not supposed to be brushing their teeth, and we teach them not to do silly things like eating an entire tube of Oral-B. Same basic principle applies to slime, even if it does turn out to contain more boron than the EU guidelines permit.

In conclusion: pots of pre-made slime are safe, certainly from a borax/boron point of view, so long as you don’t eat them. The tiny amounts of boron that might be absorbed through skin are smaller than the amounts you’d get from eating nuts and pulses, and not at all hazardous.

Making slime at home can also be safe, if you follow some sensible guidelines like, say, these ones:

Stay safe with slime by following this guidance

Slime on, my chemistry-loving friends!


Notes:
* When I looked for boron safety limits the first time, the only number I could find was the rather higher 1200 mg/kg. So I asked Twitter if anyone could direct me to the value Which? were using. I was sent a couple of links, one of which contained a lot of technical documentation, but I think the most useful is probably a “guide to international toy safety” pamphlet which includes a “Soluble Element Migration Requirements” table. In the row for boron, under “Category II: Liquid or sticky materials”, the value is indeed given as 300 mg/kg.

BUT, there is also ” Category I: Dry, brittle, powder like or pliable materials” and the value there is the much higher 1,200 mg/kg. Which begs the question: does slime count as “pliable” or “sticky”? It suggests to me that, say, a modelling clay product (pliable) would have the 4x higher limit. But surely the risk of exposure would be essentially the same? If 1,200 mg/kg is okay for modelling clay, I can’t see why it shouldn’t be for slime. In the Which? testing, only the Jupiter Juice product exceeded the Category I limit, and then not by that much (1,400 mg/kg).

Also (the notes are going to end up being longer than the post if I’m not careful), these values are migration limits, not limits on the amount allowed in the substance in total. Can anyone show that more than 300 mg/kg is able to migrate from the slime to the person handling it? Very unlikey. But again, don’t eat slime.

This is not an invitation to try and prove me wrong.

I suppose it’s possible that someone could sell slime that’s contaminated with some other toxic thing. But that could happen with anything. The general advice to “wash your/their hands and don’t eat it” will take you a long way.


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If you enjoy reading my blog, please consider buying me a coffee (I’ll probably blow it on a really big bottle of PVA glue) through Ko-fi using the button below.
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