The Chronicles of the Chronicle Flask: 2016

2016 is limping to its painful conclusion, still tossing out last-minute nasty surprises like upturned thumb tacks in the last few metres of a marathon. But the year hasn’t been ALL bad. Some fun, and certainly interesting, things happened too. No, really, they did, honestly.

So with that in mind, let’s have a look back at 2016 for the Chronicle Flask….

January kicked off with a particularly egregious news headline in a well-known broadsheet newspaper: Sugar found in ketchup and Coke linked to breast cancer. Turns out that the sugar in question was fructose. Yes, the sugar that’s in practically everything, and certainly everything that’s come from a plant. So why did the newspaper in question choose ketchup and Coke for their headline instead of, oh, say, fruit juice or honey? Surely not just in an effort to sell a few more newspapers after the overindulgent New Year celebrations. Surely.

octarineThere was something more lighthearted to follow when IUPAC  verified the discoveries of elements 113, 115, 117 and 118. This kicked off lots of speculation about the elements’ eventual names, and the Chronicle Flask suggested that one of them should be named Octarine in honour of the late Sir Terry Pratchett. Amazingly, this suggestion really caught everyone’s imagination. It was picked up in the national press, and the associated petition got over 51 thousand signatures!

In February I wrote a post about the science of statues, following the news that a statue to commemorate Sir Terry Pratchett and his work had been approved by Salisbury City Council. Did you know that there was science in statues? Well there is, lots. Fun fact: the God of metalworking was called Hephaestus, and the Greeks placed dwarf-like statues of him near their Hearths – could this be where the fantasy trope of dwarves as blacksmiths originates?

MCl and MI are common preservatives in cosmetic products

MCl and MI are common preservatives in cosmetic products

My skeptical side returned with a vengeance in March after I read some online reviews criticising a particular shampoo for containing a substance known as methylchloroisothiazolinone. So should you be scared of your shampoo? In short, no. Not unless you have a known allergy or particularly sensitive skin. Otherwise, feel free to the pick your shampoo based on the nicest bottle, the best smell, or the forlorn hope that it will actually thicken/straighten/brighten your hair as promised, even though they never, ever, ever do.

Nature Chemistry published Another Four Bricks in the Wall in April – a piece all about the potential names of new elements, partly written by yours truly. The month also brought a sinus infection. I made the most of this opportunity by writing about the cold cure that’s 5000 years old. See how I suffer for my lovely readers? You’re welcome.

In May I weighed in on all the nonsense out there about glyphosate (and, consequently, learned how to spell and pronounce glyphosate – turns out I’d been getting it wrong for ages). Is it dangerous? Nope, not really. The evidence suggests it’s pretty harmless and certainly a lot safer than most of its alternatives.

may-facebook-postSomething else happened in May: the Chronicle Flask’s Facebook page received this message in which one of my followers told me that my post on apricot kernels had deterred his mother from consuming them. This sort of thing makes it all worthwhile.

In June the names of the new elements were announced. Sadly, but not really very surprisingly, octarine was not among them. But element 118 was named oganesson and given the symbol Og. Now, officially, this was in recognition of the work of Professor Yuri Oganessian, but I for one couldn’t help but see a different reference. Mere coincidence? Surely not.

July brought another return to skepticism. This time, baby wipes, and in particular a brand that promise to be “chemical-free”. They’re not chemical-free. Nothing is chemical-free. This is a ridiculous label which shouldn’t be allowed (and yet, inexplicably, is still in use). It’s all made worse by the fact that Water Wipes contain a ‘natural preservative’ called grapefruit seed extract which, experiments have shown, only actually acts as a preservative when it’s contaminated with synthetic substances. Yep. Turns out some of Water Wipes claims are as stinky as the stuff they’re designed to clean up.

Maria Lenk Aquatic Enter, Tuesday, Aug. 9, 2016. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham)

Maria Lenk Aquatic Enter, Tuesday, Aug. 9, 2016. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham)

August brought the Olympics, and speculation was rife about what, exactly, was causing the swimming pools to turn such strange shades of green. Of course, the Chronicle Flask knew the correct solution…

August also saw MMS and CD reared their ugly heads on social media again. CD (chlorine dioxide) is, lest we forget, a type of bleach solution which certain individuals believe autistic children should be made to drink to ‘cure’ them. Worse, they believe such children should be forced to undergo daily enemas using CD solutions. I wrote a summary page on MMS (master mineral solution) and CD, as straight-up science companion to the commentary piece I wrote in 2015.

mugsSeptember took us back to pesticides, but this time with a more lighthearted feel. Did you know that 99.99% of all the pesticides you consume are naturally-occurring? Well, you do if you regularly read this blog. The Chronicle Flask, along with MugWow, also produced a lovely mug. It’s still for sale here, if you need a late Christmas present… (and if you use the code flask15 you’ll even get a discount!)

In October, fed up with endless arguments about the definition of the word ‘chemical’ I decided to settle the matter once and for all. Kind of. And following that theme I also wrote 8 Things Everyone Gets Wong About ‘Scary’ Chemicals for WhatCulture Science.

Just in case that wasn’t enough, I also wrote a chapter of a book on the missing science of superheroes in October. Hopefully we should see it in print in 2017.

Sparklers are most dangerous once they've gone out.

Sparklers are most dangerous once they’ve gone out.

I decided to mark Fireworks Night in November by writing about glow sticks and sparklers. Which is riskier? The question may not be as straightforward as you’d imagine. This was followed by another WhatCulture Science piece, featuring some genuinely frightening substances: 10 Chemicals You Really Should Be Scared Of.

And that brings us to December, and this little summary. I hope you’ve enjoyed the blog this year – do tell your friends about it! Remember to follow @ChronicleFlask on Twitter and like fb.com/chronicleflask on Facebook – both get updated more or less daily.

Here’s wishing all my lovely readers a very Happy New Year – enjoy a drop of bubbly ethanol solution and be careful with the Armstrong’s mixture…. 

See you on the other side!

new-year-1898553_960_720

What IS a chemical?

a_chemistry_teacher_explaining_an_experiment_8d41253v

You at the back there! Get your nose out of that dictionary and pay attention!

What do we mean when we use the word “chemical”? It seems like a simple enough question, but is it, really? I write about chemicals all the time – in fact my last WhatCulture article was about just that – and I’ve mentioned lots of different definitions before. But I’ll be honest, some of them have bothered me.

I don’t often like the definitions you find in dictionaries. Lexicography and chemistry don’t seem to be common bedfellows, and dictionary compilers haven’t, generally speaking, spent their formative years being incessantly nagged by weary chemistry teachers about their choice of vocabulary.

For example, in the Cambridge Dictionary we find:
any basic substance that is used in or produced by a reaction involving changes to atoms or molecules.”

Hm. Firstly, “basic” has a specific meaning in chemistry. Obviously the definition doesn’t mean to imply that acids aren’t chemicals, but it sort of accidentally does. Then there’s the implication that a chemical reaction has to be involved. So inert substances aren’t chemicals? Admittedly, “used in” doesn’t necessarily imply reacts – it could be some sort of inert solvent, say – but, again, it’s bothersome. Finally, “atoms or molecules”. Ionic substances not chemicals either, then?

Yes, it’s picky, but chemists are picky. Be glad that we are. A misplaced word, or even letter, on a label could have serious consequences. Trust me, you do not want to mix up the methanol with the ethanol if you’re planning cocktails. Similarly, fluorine is a whole other kettle of piranhas compared to fluoride ions. This stuff, excuse the pun, matters.

Dictionary definitions have their problems.

Dictionary definitions have their problems.

Let’s look at some more definitions (of the word as a noun):

The Free Dictionary tells us that a chemical is:
“A substance with a distinct molecular composition that is produced by or used in a chemical process.”

Merriam Webster says:
“of, relating to, used in, or produced by chemistry or the phenomena of chemistry <chemical reactions>”

And Dictionary.com goes with the simple:
“a substance produced by or used in a chemical process.”

That idea that a chemical reaction must be involved somehow seems to be pervasive. It’s understandable, since that’s the way the word is mostly used, but it’s not really right. Helium, after all, is still very much a chemical, despite being stubbornly unreactive.

Possibly the best of the bunch is found in the Oxford Living Dictionary:
“A distinct compound or substance, especially one which has been artificially prepared or purified.”

Not bad. Well done Oxford. No mention of chemical reactions here – it’s just a substance. We do most often think of chemicals as things which have been “prepared” somehow. Which is fair enough, although it can lead to trouble. In particular, ridiculous references to “chemical-free” which actually mean “this alternative stuff is naturally-occurring.” (Except of course it often isn’t: see this article about baby wipes.) The implication, of course, is that thing in question is safe(r), but there are lots and lots of very nasty chemicals in nature: natural does not mean safe.

You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

Sometimes people will go the other way and say “everything is chemicals.” We know what this means, but it has its problems, too. Light isn’t a chemical. Sound isn’t a chemical. All right, those are forms of energy. What about neutrinos, then? Or a single proton? Or a single atom? Or, going the other way, some complicated bit of living (or once living) material? In one debate about this someone suggested to me that a “chemical was anything you could put in a jar,” at which point I pedantically said, “I keep coffee in a jar. Is that a chemical?” Obviously there are chemicals in coffee, it works from the “everything is chemicals” perspective, but it’s a single substance that’s not a chemical.

Language is annoying. This is why chemists like symbols and numbers so much.

Anyway, what have we learned? Firstly, something doesn’t necessarily have to be part of a chemical reaction to be a chemical. Secondly, we need to include the idea that it’s something with a defined composition (rather than a complex, variable mixture, like coffee), thirdly that chemical implies matter – light, sound etc don’t count, and fourthly that it also implies a certain quantity of stuff (we probably wouldn’t think of a single atom as a chemical, but collect a bunch together into a sample of gas and we probably would).

So with all that in mind, I think I shall go with:

So what IS a chemical?

A chemical is…

(Drum roll please….)

Any substance made of atoms, molecules and/or ions which has a fixed composition.

I’m not entirely convinced this is perfect, but I think it more or less works.

If you have a better idea, please do comment and let me know!


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No element octarine, but Nanny will be pleased…

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-768x378

New Element Names, by Compound Interest (click image for more info)

As you can see, octarine sadly didn’t make the cut. Perhaps the million to one chance rule just doesn’t work so well on roundworld. Oh well.

But look, they didn’t completely forget about us! They just misspelled ‘Ogg and Son’. It’s easily done. I’m sure Nanny will still be pleased.

nanny_ogg_by_hyaroo-d6mnot6

Nanny Ogg. Image byHyaroo, http://hyaroo.deviantart.com/

*Oganesson actually recognises Professor Yuri Oganessian (born 1933) for his pioneering contributions to transactinoid elements research. But perhaps he’s a distant relative?


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Feet of clay? The science of statues

Concept art for the Terry Pratchett statue (c) Paul Kidby

Concept art for the Terry Pratchett statue (c) Paul Kidby

Yesterday we received the exciting news that a statue to commemorate Sir Terry Pratchett and his work has been approved by Salisbury City Council. Hurrah! So, even if we don’t quite manage to get octarine into the periodic table (and thus into every science textbook for ever more), it’s looking very likely that there will still be something permanent to help keep his memory alive.

But this got me thinking about everyday chemistry (who am I kidding, I’m always thinking about everyday chemistry!) and, in particular, bronze – the material from which the statue will be made.

Bronze, I hear you say, what’s that good for apart from, well, statues? And maybe bells? Is it really that interesting?

Well, let’s see. Bronze is an alloy. Alloys are mixtures that contain at least one metal, but they’re stranger than the word ‘mixture’ might perhaps suggest. Imagine combining, say, sand and stones. You still be able to see the sand. You could see the stones. You could, if you could be bothered to do it, separate them out again. And you’d expect the mixture to behave like, well, stony sand.

Alloys aren’t like this. Alloys (other well-known examples include steel, brass and that silver-coloured stuff dentists use for filling teeth) look, on all but the atomic level, like pure metals. They’re bendy and shiny, they make pleasing ringing sounds when you hit them and they’re good electrical conductors. And unlike more simple mixtures, they’re difficult (though not impossible) to separate back into their constituents.

Perhaps the most interesting this about alloys is that their properties are often very different to any of the elements that went into making them. Bronze, in particular, is harder than either tin or copper, and hence The Bronze Age is so historically significant. Copper is one of the few metals that can (just about) be found in its pure form, and so is one of the oldest elements we know, going back at least as far as 9000 BC. But while quite pretty to look at, copper isn’t ideal for making tools, being fairly soft and not great at keeping an edge. Bronze, on the other hand, is much more durable, and was therefore a much better choice for for building materials, armour and, of course, weapons. (War, what is it good for? Er, the development of new materials?)

Hephaestus was the God of fire and metalworking; according to legend he was lame.

Hephaestus was the God of metalworking. According to legend he was lame, could it have been because of exposure to arsenic fumes?

Today we (well, chemists anyway) think of bronze as being an alloy of tin and copper, but the earliest bronzes were made with arsenic, copper ores often being naturally contaminated with this element. Arsenical bronzes can be work-hardened, and the arsenic could, if the quantities were right, also produce a pleasing a silvery sheen on the finished object. Unfortunately, arsenic vaporises at below the melting point of bronze, producing poisonous fumes which attacked eyes, lungs and skin. We know now that it also causes peripheral neuropathy, which might be behind the historical legends of lame smiths, for example Hephaestus, the Greek God of smiths. Interestingly, the Greeks frequently placed small dwarf-like statues of Hephaestus near their hearths, and this is might be where the idea of dwarves as blacksmiths and metalworkers originates.

Tin bronze required a little more know-how (not to mention trade negotiations) than arsenical bronze, since tin very rarely turns up mixed with copper in nature. But it had several advantages. The tin fumes weren’t toxic and, if you knew what you were doing, the alloying process could be more easily controlled. The resulting alloy was also stronger and easier to cast.

teaspoon in mugOf course, as we all know, bronze ultimately gave way to iron. Bronze is actually harder than wrought iron, but iron was considerably easier to find and simpler to process into useful metal. Steel, which came later, ultimately combined superior strength with a relatively lower cost and, in the early 20th century, corrosion resistance. And that’s why the teaspoon sitting in my mug is made of stainless steel and not some other metal.

Bronze has a relatively limited number of uses today, being a heavy and expensive metal, but it is still used to make statues, where heaviness and costliness aren’t necessarily bad things (unless, of course, someone pinches the statue and melts it down – an unfortunately common occurrence with ancient works). It has the advantages of being ductile and extremely corrosion resistant; ideal for something that’s going to sit outside in all weathers. A little black copper oxide will form on its surface over time, and eventually green copper carbonate, but this is superficial and it’s a really long time before any fine details are lost. In addition, bronze’s hardness and ductility means that any pointy bits probably won’t snap off under the weight of the two-millionth pigeon.

So how are bronze statues made? For this I asked Paul Kidby, who designed the concept art for the statue. He told me that he sculpts in Chavant, which is an oil-based clay. It’s lighter than normal clay and, crucially, resists shrinking and cracking. He then sends his finished work away to be cast in bronze at a UK foundry, where they make a mould of his statue and from that, ultimately (skipping over multiple steps), a bronze copy. Bronze has another nifty property, in that it expands slightly just before it sets. This means it fills the finest details of moulds which produces a very precise finish. Conveniently, the metal shrinks again as it cools, making the mould easy to remove.

And just for completeness, Paul also told me that the base of the statue will most likely be polished granite, water jet cut with the design of the Discworld sitting on the back of Great A’Tuin. I can just imagine it – it’s going to be beautiful.

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Name element 117 Octarine, in honour of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld

Sign the petition to name element 117 Octarine

UPDATE: Nature Chemistry have recently released a list of odds for the suggested new element names. Octarine is 1,000,000:1. And since, as we know: “Magicians have calculated that million-to-one chances crop up nine times out of ten,” that makes it practically a dead cert!

octarine

Octarine can famously only be seen by wizards (and witches) and cats and perhaps, now, some scientists. (Image: Discworld.com)

As you will have heard, the periodic table’s seventh row has finally been filled as four new elements have been added. Atomic numbers 115, 117 and 118 have been credited to the Joint Institute for Nuclear Research in Dubna and the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California. Element 113 has been credited to a team of scientists from the Riken institute in Japan.

Period 7 is finally filled (image credit, IUPAC)

Period 7 is finally filled (image credit: IUPAC)

These elements were discovered a little while ago, but the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC) – who’s in charge of such things – have only recently verified these discoveries and asked the scientists responsible to suggest names to replace their existing temporary names of ununtrium, ununpentium, ununseptium and ununoctium.

IUPAC does have rules about naming. Namely: “Elements can be named after a mythological concept, a mineral, a place or country, a property or a scientist.”

Now, mythological concept… that might be a bit flexible, mightn’t it? What’s the definition of mythology? Well, according to dictionary.com, it’s: “a body of myths, as that of a particular people or that relating to a particular person.” And the definition of myth is “a traditional or legendary story, usually concerning some being or hero or event, with or without a determinable basis of fact or a natural explanation, especially one that is concerned with deities or demigods and explains some practice, rite, or phenomenon of nature.

I can work with that!

Terry Pratchett Terry Pratchett at home near Salisbury, Wiltshire, Britain - 04 Jun 2008

The late Sir Terry Pratchett at home near Salisbury, Wiltshire, Britain – 04 Jun 2008
(Image Credit: Photo by Adrian Sherratt/REX, (770612f), via theguardian.com)

So I propose that element 117, falling as it does in group 17 (the halogens), be named octarine, in honour of the late, great, Terry Pratchett and his phenomenally successful Discworld books. I’m also proposing the symbol Oc (pronounced, of course, as ‘ook’*).

As a halogen, 117 ought to have an ‘ine’ ending, so octarine makes perfect sense. Over 70 million Pratchett books have been sold worldwide, in 37 different languages, and lots of them concern heroes, gods and monsters. Ok, they’re not quite as old as the Greek myths, but they will be one day, right? Time is relative and all that.

Octarine, in the Discworld books, is known as ‘the colour of magic’, which also forms the title of Pratchett’s first ever Discworld book. According to Disc mythology (see, mythology), octarine is visible only to wizards and cats, and is generally described as a sort of greenish-yellow purple colour. Something that’s difficult to find and hard to observe; what could be more perfect?

So pop along and sign my petition. Maybe the Russian and American scientists are Discworld fans? You never know. If nothing else I’m absolutely certain that Sir Terry, the author of the Science of the Discworld series of books, would have a little chuckle at the idea.

“It is well known that a vital ingredient of success is not knowing that what you’re attempting can’t be done” — Terry Pratchett

* with thanks to Tom Willoughby for the pronunciation suggestion).

EDIT:

Since I started this, one or two devoted Discworld fans have commented that I should have suggested that element 118 be named octiron instead. This is because in Discworld the number 8 has special significance, and also because octiron is the metal which is the source of magical energy, and hence leads to octarine, which is just the colour of magic.

But I’m sticking with 117 and octarine. The greenish-yellow purple description seems perfect for a new halogen, and the ‘ine’ ending is just right for group 17. Although octiron also has the right ending for group 18 (‘on’), it doesn’t quite fit since it’s a metal and group 18 is technically made up of noble gases (admittedly, when you’ve only got a couple of atoms of a thing, metal vs. noble gas might be a bit irrelevant). Plus, the fact that octarine is ‘the colour of magic’ makes it seem like a more fitting tribute, this being, as I mentioned above, the title of Terry Pratchett’s first ever Discworld book.

It’s possible I’ve spent a little too long thinking about this…

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The 2015 Chronicle Flask Christmas Quiz!

Christmas preparations are well underway by now, but have you been paying attention to your chemistry? Of course you have! Well, let’s see… (answers at the bottom, this is a low-tech quiz).

  1. Let’s start with an easy one. In the nativity, the three wise men allegedly turned up at the stable with three pressies for little Jesus. But which chemical symbol could represent one of the gifts?
    a) Ag
    b) Au
    c) Al
    wisemen
  2. On the topic of chemical symbols, which christmassy word can you make out of these elements?
    carbon, radium, carbon (again), potassium, erbium, sulfur

    PT

  3. It doesn’t look like snow is very likely in most of England this year, but we can dream. And while we’re dreaming: why do snowflakes always have six sides?
    a) because water has three atoms and they join up to make six.
    b) it’s usually something do with hydrogen bonding.
    c) they don’t, it’s a myth.

    snowflakes_PNG7535

  4. Where would you be most likely to find this molecule at Christmas?
    a) In the Christmas cookies.
    b) In the festive stilton.
    c) In the Christmas turkey.
    cinnamaldehyde
  5. Mmm Christmas cookies! But which other chemical substance is often added to cakes and biscuits to help them rise?
    a) sodium carbonate.
    b) sodium hydrogen carbonate.
    b) calcium carbonate.

    christmas-cookies-wallpapers-hd-desktop-wallpaper-christmas-cookie-desktopchristmas-cookies-clip-easy-sugar-tree-cute-ideas-very-best-candy-recipes-with-pictures-martha-stewart-wallpapers-hd-desktop

  6. Let’s think about the booze for a moment. Which fact is true about red wine?
    a) It tastes significantly different to white wine.
    b) Mixing it with other drinks will make your hangover worse.
    c) It’s mostly water.
    red-wine
  7. And why are beer bottles usually brown or green?
    a) Because these colours block blue light.
    b) Because in the old days beer was often a funny colour, and the coloured glass disguised it.
    c) Because it’s good luck.
    beer-bottles
  8. Where would you be most likely to find this molecule at Christmas?
    a) In the Christmas cake
    b) In the mulled wine
    c) In the wrapping paper

    Cellulose

  9. Let’s turn to New Year for a moment. What makes party poppers go pop?
    a) Gunpowder
    b) Silver fulminate
    c) Armstrong’s mixture

    Party_poppers

  10. And who doesn’t love a firework or two? So, which substance is used to produce a blue colour?
    a) Sodium bicarbonate
    b) Copper chloride
    c) Magnesium powder

    blue fireworks

ANSWERS

  1. b) Au – gold
  2. CRaCKErS!
  3. b) – hydrogen bonds form between the oxygen atom of one water molecule and the hydrogen atom of another molecule, causing the molecules to link up into hexagon shapes (pretty much any question to do with water can be answered with ‘something to do with hydrogen bonding’).
  4. a) – in the cookies, it’s cinnamaldehyde, which is the molecule that gives cinnamon it’s flavour and smell.
  5. b) – sodium hydrogen carbonate, also known as sodium bicarbonate, or just ‘bicarb’, breaks down when heated and forms carbon dioxide. It’s the formation of this gas which causes mixtures to rise.
  6. c) – the flavour and colour components of wine only make up about 2% of its volume. If we assume 12% alcohol, then the wine is 86% water. Still, probably best not to glug on a wine bottle after your morning run. On the other two points, there isn’t much evidence that mixing drinks makes hangovers worse (unless, as a result, you drink more alcohol), although some specific types of drinks may cause worse symptoms than others. As for taste, in this paper researchers describe an experiment where they gave 54 tasters white wine dyed red with food colouring. The tasters then went on to describe it as a red wine, suggesting that appearance was much more important than actual taste.
  7. a) – the coloured glass used in beer bottles is there to block blue light. These wavelengths can cause some of the substances in beer to react with each other, resulting in unpleasant flavours.
  8. c) – in the wrapping paper. It’s cellulose, the main constituent of paper.
  9. c) – It’s usually Armstrong’s mixture in party poppers, which is a highly sensitive primary explosive containing red phosphorous (eek). Did I trick any of the chemists out there? Silver fulminate is used in Christmas crackers.
  10. b) – Copper chloride, and also copper oxide and copper carbonate when combined with other things. Sodium bicarbonate produces yellow, and magnesium is white.

How many did you get right? Tell me in the comments, or pop along to The Chronicle Flask’s Facebook page and brag there. Merry Christmas!

Are we really wasting a valuable natural resource at parties?

Solar_eclipse_1999_4_NR

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).

There are much more interesting inert gases. There’s one that wasn’t even discovered on Earth. In fact, it was first spotted on the Sun by Jules Janssen, an astronomer who was taking advantage of a total solar eclipse to study the Sun’s atmosphere. After some more experiments astronomer Norman Lockyer and chemist Edward Frankland named the element after the Greek word for the Sun. It was the first element to be discovered somewhere other than Earth.

Helium_spectrum

Spectral lines of helium

As it turns out, this element is the second most abundant element in the universe (after hydrogen), but one of the least abundant elements on Earth – with a concentration of just 8 parts per billion in the Earth’s crust.

Today, almost all of us meet it as very young children. In balloons.

It’s helium, the second-lightest element in the periodic table and also, perhaps, the ultimate non-renewable resource.

Most of us meet this element as children.

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 bioethanolbiodiesel 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.

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.

It doesn’t stop there. Helium is also used in deep-sea diving, in airships, to cool nuclear reactors and certain other types of chemical detectors. NASA also uses massive amounts of helium to help clean out the fuel from its rockets. In summary, it’s important stuff.

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.

The National Helium Reserve

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.

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.

NABAS logo

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.

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?

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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