Chemistry jokes get the best reactions

Today, 24th March, is Red Nose Day 2017 in the UK. I decided to see if I could collect some new chemistry jokes. There are some, of course, that we’ve all heard before – we might even say that all the best ones argon.

So, I promised to donate £10 if I got sent at least five new jokes. And I did! So I have! And here are my favourite five, in no particular order. Enjoy!

“I’ll tell you a joke about a tiny amount of iron for a small Fe.”@hullodave

“Chemistry Fact: There’s really no such thing as hydrogen. The inventor of the Periodic Table just needed a place to land a tiny helicopter.”@hullodave

“Why don’t they galvanise ships to stop corrosion? …That would make them zinc.”

“Do you know why everyone wants to work with bismuth? Because there’s no bismuth like showbismuth!” — @GriceChemistry

“I know a great long Justus Von Liebig joke but it needs condensing to get it on Twitter.” — 

If you’ve enjoyed these, if they’ve even so much as made you crack a little smile, please go and donate a couple of quid to Comic Relief. It’s a brilliant charity which helps people all over the world.

Donate here

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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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Why weigh atoms that way?

A couple of days ago I was listening to the latest Radiolab podcast. If you’ve never listened to one of these, you really should. They are beautifully produced and, without fail, utterly fascinating. Over the last year or so I’ve learned about a possible cure for a disease with a 100% mortality rate, an apocryphal Russian story about horses frozen into a block of ice, and a new theory for the end of the dinosaurs where, if I understood it correctly, they were essentially grilled to death. Episodes of Radiolab always feel like a thoroughly good use of brain-time.

Anyway, if you’re still with me and haven’t dashed off to immediately download some of these little gems, the most recent episode is about weights and measures and how we’ve standardised them over the years. In particular the kilogram, which is the last physical standard in use, although possibly not for long (listen to the podcast).

shutterstock_27019597_Alhovik_mod_2

So what are the scales made of…?

This got me thinking about atoms and, in particular, how we decide their mass. This matters you see, because the mass of atoms tells us chemists how much stuff to use. If I want a saline solution with a particular concentration, all I need do is look up the numbers on the periodic table, weigh out the appropriate amount of salt and dilute it with the appropriate amount of water. And if you’re a patient who needs a saline drip, you’d better hope I did it correctly.

Anyway, if you remember your periodic table (which of course you do, but just in case, here’s a picture) all the elements come with two numbers.

The Periodic Table

One of these numbers is the atomic number, which is the number of protons in the nucleus of each atom of the element. Conveniently, nature has managed to produce an atomic nucleus for each number between 1 and, at last count, 118 and if you ‘read’ the periodic table from left to right, top to bottom, you’ll see the numbers go up one at a time.

The other number, relative atomic mass, is a bit less tidy. It still goes up as you go along the periodic table, but in less regular jumps of roughly between one and three.  Without going into lots of detail, relative atomic mass is standardised against 112 the mass of carbon-12. Which begs the question, why? The more mathematically aware will have clocked that 112 of 12 is, well, 1. So why don’t we compare all the elements to hydrogen, which actually has a mass of 1? Or if that’s infeasible for some reason why not, I don’t know, choose 19 of beryllium-9, or 128 of silicon-28?

Well actually, almost exactly 200 years ago now, atomic mass (called atomic weight, at the time) was originally compared to hydrogen, and it was thought that all elements would have masses which were exact multiples of hydrogen’s.

The problem with this was that as measuring techniques became more sophisticated it became clear that some elements were inconveniently failing to follow the rule. In fact, some were downright contrary, like chlorine which appeared to have a mass which wasn’t even a whole number.

This was, at least partially, sorted out in 1932 when James Chadwick proved the existence of neutrons. The existence of isotopes had already been suggested, but this finally cleared up what the pesky things actually were. It turns out some atoms are fatter than others, having one or two more uncharged particles in their nuclei. This doesn’t change what atom they are – they still have the same number of protons – but it does make them a bit heavier. Take a sample of pure chlorine, for example, and you find that roughly three quarters of the atoms in it have a mass of 35, whereas the other quarter have a mass of 37. These are the isotopes of chlorine: imaginatively named chlorine-35 and chlorine-37. Work out the weighted average of the two and you get 35.5, which is the number you see on periodic tables.

In the mid-20th century something of a minor squabble between chemists and physicists broke out (chemists and physicists often squabble: they’re a bit like the English and the French: they like to visit each other but only so that they can moan about how annoying the other lot are and how badly they do everything). By this time had been a switch from using hydrogen (the lightest element) to oxygen as the standard to which other elemental masses were compared. This was mainly for the convenience of chemical analysis: oxygen combines with a lot of things to make straightforward oxides, whereas hydrides are less common and trickier to work with. Plus, large quantities of hydrogen gas are a bit (in the sense of an elephant being a bit heavy, or cyanide being a bit poisonous) of an explosion risk. Oxygen causes other things to burn jolly nicely, but isn’t actually flammable itself. If you can manage to keep it away from other flammable stuff it’s a far safer option.

The problem was that chemists were using a mass scale based on assigning the number 16 to a natural mixture of oxygen (which contains mostly oxygen-16, with little bits of oxygen-17 and oxygen-18). Physicists, on the other hand, had instead assigned the number 16 to the isotope oxygen-16, which they had isolated using the technique of mass spectrometry.

Josef Mattauch

Physicist Josef Mattauch

You may think the physicists’ method sounds more logical, but the chemists’ reasoning was that in naturally-occurring compounds there would be a mixture of isotopes, so it made sense to use a number based on that mixture since you never actually encounter one atom on its own. Either way, the result was differences in the numbers, admittedly some way down the decimal places, but none the less a difference. Of course it was possible to convert between the two, but at the time scientists were fiddling with such tricksy things as nuclear energy and, of course, bombs. Even a tiny discrepancy in the nth decimal place was potentially catastrophic. Something had to be done.

Edward_Wichers

Chemist Edward Wichers

In 1961 a compromise was agreed, thanks largely to the combined efforts of the physicist Josef Mattauch and the chemist Edward Wichers, who set about persuading their respective groups to be reasonable and play nicely with each other.

The result was that carbon-12 was assigned a mass of exactly 12 and the relative atomic mass scale became based on that. The choice of carbon was, to an extent, somewhat arbitrary. It suited the physicists, who were already using carbon as a standard for mass spectrometry. It fell in between the two previous values (1 for hydrogen and 16 for oxygen), which meant it wouldn’t throw every existing piece of work out by too much. In particular, chemists weren’t keen on switching to the physicists’ method of 116 of the oxygen-16 isotope, because it would change their numbers quite significantly. Switching to 112 of carbon-12 meant, surprisingly, a smaller change. Carbon is also, of course, a naturally abundant element and it was easy to get samples of pure carbon.

And that, as they say, is that. The carbon-12 scale is still used today, over 50 years later, and it’s not going anywhere. Hydrogen is officially 112 the mass of carbon-12, and we use carbon-12 because, basically, it was the only option the chemists and physicists would agree on. Hey, it’s as good a reason as any.