Stories tagged chemistry


What would happen if you were to put Alkali in water?


Picture this with more balls: Nice, huh?
Picture this with more balls: Nice, huh?Courtesy Echo_29
Southern California is ball-crazy! Sure, everyone loves balls, from babies to seniors, but SoCal has brought it to a whole new level.

Los Angeles, in particular, is doing things with balls I’d never even thought of. They’re putting them in the water… by the millions! Millions of balls in the water, I guess, will make it better to drink.

The issue here is cancer. Or carcinogens—materials that can cause cancer. So the issue here is cancer.

Bromide, a naturally occurring ion of the element bromine, happens to be found in Los Angeles’ reservoirs. Bromine isn’t much to worry about on its own, but it turns out that the ion interacts with chlorine and sunlight (both of which are also found in the LA reservoirs) to form bromates, a group of chemicals that contain carcinogens. I couldn’t find a reference that explains it fully, but it looks like this is how it (basically) works: chlorine dioxide, the form of chlorine we use to treat drinking water, breaks down in sunlight into chlorine and oxygen. The bromide ions end up grabbing on to some oxygen to form BrO3, the bromate anion (“anion” just means that it’s a molecule with a negative charge). When that negatively charged bromate anion combines with a positively charged ion, a bromate is formed. And those are, as we’ve established, often bad. The combination of sunlight, bromide, and chlorine in LA’s reservoirs means that their water sources are becoming contaminated with bromates.

So thank goodness for balls, lots of balls. The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power means to solve the problem by removing sunlight from the situation. In about five years a huge underground reservoir should be finished, but until then LA has decided that the best way to block sunlight from the water is to cover it with millions and millions of black, plastic balls. They’ll float, and allow most things, but not sunlight, to pass through them. And they’ll look super crazy.

As we all know, however, you don’t just fill up a couple 10-acre reservoirs with balls in a weekend. Plus, the ball-making company can only produce about 100,000 balls a day, and there’s no doubt a great demand for balls beyond LADWP’s 6.5 million ball order. So this going to be a lengthy project. Over the next four years the Ivanhoe and Elysian reservoirs will be filled with about 3 million balls each. And then the underground reservoir will be ready. I expect there may be some spare balls around LA at that point.

Here’s more on the trouble with Bromates in drinking water.

And here’s more on balls.


Chemistry is fun!: Messy, but fun.
Chemistry is fun!: Messy, but fun.Courtesy stacina

(With the Republican National Convention literally across the street, the Science Museum of Minnesota will be closed starting Friday, August 29. But Science Buzz marches on! To honor our convention guests, I’ll be posting entries focusing on issues where science and politics overlap. Hopefully this will spur some discussion. Or at least tick some people off. Previous entries here, here, here and here.)

A couple of chemistry-related items that recently caught my eye:

Chemist arrested in Massachusetts
A retired chemist is arrested for conducting experiments in his home. When science is outlawed, only outlaws will practice science.

“Banned” chemistry book
A supposedly “banned” children's chemistry book is available on the web. When science books are outlawed, only outlaws will have science books.

(Actually, the US government does not have the power to ‘ha[ve] had the book removed from libraries and banned for sale.” The author doesn’t cite any sources, and all I could find on the web are people repeating the same claim. Some bloggers, however, note that the experiments in this book can be extremely dangerous if not done exactly right. Rather than a ban, it’s more likely the publisher just let it fall out of print rather than risk getting sued.)


A fun way to learn about elements

There is a video channel on You Tube that will feature a video about each element on the periodic table. I am featuring the video on sodium below.

Sodium is amazing

When sodium is placed in water it floats because it is lighter than water. It also reacts with water. Sodium, because it is more reactive, takes the place of of one of the hydrogen atoms in water, (HOH). The hydrogen replaced is freed and the heat energy of the reaction often ignites the hydrogen. The burning hydrogen combines with oxygen in the air releasing energy which appears to be an explosion (or is it an implosion). All I know is that when my high school companions threw a chunk of it in the river the result was water blasted 13 feet into the air.

Sodium is hazardous

One should note that the sodium attached to the remaining OH from the water molecule makes sodium hydroxide (NaOH). Sodium Hydroxide is the active ingredient in Drano which eats through fat, grease, and skin. I learned the hard way that it burned skin and ruined clothing.

Video about sodium (Na)

Click here to see more videos about elements from the periodic chart.


Ice cream is a delicious treat on a hot day: provided you DON'T SOAK IT IN ANTIFREEZE!!!
Ice cream is a delicious treat on a hot day: provided you DON'T SOAK IT IN ANTIFREEZE!!!Courtesy Clover_1

Let me start by stating this as clearly as I can:


There, are we all clear on that? Good.

A scientist in Wisconsin has developed an edible antifreeze that will prevent ice crystals from forming in that block of old ice cream you forgot about in the back of your freezer.


The edible antifreeze is made from a fruit enzyme that cuts proteins into smaller pieces and keeps them from freezing. It might also be used to protect meats from “freezer burn.”


We hope you have enjoyed our little discourse on the wonders of food processing.

fireworksCourtesy ®oberto
Scientists are working to create more environmentally sensitive pyrotechnics . Their research may have far reaching applications. Many military missiles and flares share a similar chemical make-up to fireworks. By adjusting the formula, scientists hope to reduce the amount of perchlorate involved in each reaction.

Researchers in France have invented a new type of rubber that repairs itself. Press two pieces together, and they bond together without using any kind of glue or heat.


Don't do drugs!: This guy may have just seen Lucy in the sky with diamonds!
Don't do drugs!: This guy may have just seen Lucy in the sky with diamonds!Courtesy Mark Ryan
Dr. Albert Hofmann, the Swiss scientist who synthesized lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) died yesterday at his home in Basel, Switzerland. He was 102.

Hofmann was working for Sandoz Pharmaceuticals (now Novartis) when he first synthesized LSD-25 in 1938. However, he set it aside and didn’t stumble upon its hallucinogenic powers until 5 years later, when, while synthesizing a new batch for study, he accidentally ingested some of it from his fingertips.

Once that genie was let out of the bottle, Hofmann went whole-hog investigating the drug’s possibilities, doing many experiments on himself and his colleagues.

He later became director of Sandoz’s natural products department studying other natural mind-altering substances, such as those found in Mexican mushrooms (psilocybin) and in the seeds of the morning glory species Rivea corymbosa (lysergic acid amide).

Hofmann referred to LSD as “medicine for the soul” and spent much of his life trying to convince others of its medicinal and therapeutic value, although he admitted it could be dangerous in the wrong hands. The drug was made illegal after a rise in popularity by counterculture youth during the 1960s.

"I produced the substance as a medicine,” he once said. “It's not my fault if people abused it.”


Associated Press story
Albert Hofmann link on Wikipedia
More on LSD


Nipping crime in the bud: When asked whether or not this method could be used to find the source of other illegal drugs, the Alaskan scientist stated, "Um... What?"  (photo by ilmungo)
Nipping crime in the bud: When asked whether or not this method could be used to find the source of other illegal drugs, the Alaskan scientist stated, "Um... What?"
(photo by ilmungo)

Sometimes I place quotation “marks” randomly. It’s a kind of written-language Tourette’s Syndrome, and I live in constant fear that its effects might “lead” people to false conclusions. “”

Anyhow, scientists at the University of Alaska Fairbanks are developing methods of tracing samples of marijuana back to their points of origin by studying the “isotopic fingerprint” of the plants. Presumably this is to aid people suffering from the advanced stages glaucoma find their medicine.

Whatever the reason for it might be, the process for determining the growing location of the drug is an interesting one. Isotopes, for those of you who are still reading, are, of course, elements with the same number of protons and electrons, but different numbers of neutrons. For example, the element nitrogen can be found with 13 neutrons, 14 neutrons, or 15 neutrons – those are all isotopes of nitrogen.

When you look at the ratio of isotopes in an object, you can sometimes find out where that object came from geographically, because certain areas will sometimes have isotopic signatures. This is how scientists figured out where Otzi the Iceman came from: the enamel on his teeth had an isotopic match with a small region in Italy, so it’s very likely he grew up there.

Applying this basic method to marijuana, the Alaskan scientists are finding that isotopic levels of hydrogen and oxygen in the plants can show where the water they were fed with came from. Carbon in the plant can show whether or not it was grown indoors. Nitrogen isotope levels can also be used to learn about plants’ origins. Combining the information from all of these ratios, researchers are attempting to construct a map of marijuana isotopic signatures, so that any sample with unknown origins could be matched up with a specific location.

In order to achieve this isotope map, however, the project director says he needs “time, money and many more samples of marijuana.”

Science takes back the streets!