Monthly Archives: May 2016

Let’s add boron powder

‘Boron’ page from Theodore Gray’s book, The Elements

Boron is a metalloid: an intermediate between the metals and non-metals. It exists in many polymorphs (different crystal lattice structures), some of which exhibit more metallic character than others. Metallic boron is non-toxic, extremely hard and has a very high melting point: only 11 elements have a higher melting point than boron.

British scientist Sir Humphrey Davy described boron thus:

“[Boron is] of the darkest shades of olive. It is opake[sic], very friable, and its powder does not scratch glass. If heated in the atmosphere, it takes fire at a temperature below the boiling point of olive oil, and burns with a red light and with scintillations like charcoal” – Sir Humphrey Davy in 1809

Initial condition

Before we add the 1.00 mol of boron into our reaction vessel, we need to recall what’s already in there from our experiments so far:

  • H2(g): 0.70 mol
  • He(g): 1.00 mol
  • Li(s): 0.40 mol
  • LiH(s): 0.60 mol
  • Be(s): 1.00 mol

The temperature of our vessel is 99 °C and the pressure of the gaseous phase is 525.5 kPa.

Now, let’s add our 1.00 mol of boron powder.

Which reactions take place?

Boron reacts with hydrogen gas to produce a colourless gas called borane, BH3(g), according to the following equation[1]:


Boron also reacts with lithium in very complex ways. If we heat the vessel up to 350 °C, we’d expect to see the formation of a boron-lithium system with chemical formula B3Li according to this equation[2]:


Notice that now we’ve heated up our vessel to 350 °C to allow this reaction to happen, the lithium at the bottom of the vessel has melted.

Boron reacts with lithium hydride as well, but only at temperatures around 688 °C. With our vessel’s temperature set at 350 °C, we won’t observe this particular reaction in our experiment.[3]

Some allotropes of boron – in particular, the alpha allotrope that was discovered in 1958 – is capable of reacting with beryllium to form BeB12. Because we’re using beryllium powder, which has semi-random  symmetry, we won’t see any BeB12 forming in our vessel. Alpha-boron only exists at pressures higher than around 3500 kPa. At our moderate pressure of only 525.5 kPa, powdered (semi-random) boron will prevail and no BeB12 will form.[4]

For simplicity’s sake, let’s assume that the two reactions above take place with equal preference.

Boron powder reacts with hydrogen gas

Let’s do an ice table to find out how much borane we make.


A quick n/ratio calculation shows us that the hydrogen gas is limiting in this reaction:


We can expect all of the hydrogen gas to react with the boron powder.

units are mol 2 B 3 H2 2 BH3
I 0.50 0.70 0
C -0.466 -0.70 +0.466
E 0.0333 0 0.466

Borane is very unstable as BH3, and it would probably dimerise into B2H6(g). This is still a gas at 350 °C and is much more stable than BH3. For the rest of this experiment we’ll assume that our 0.466 mol of BH3 has dimerised completely into 0.233 mol of B2H6.

Boron powder reacts with lithium

With the molar ratios present in our vessel, at 350 °C, we’d expect to witness the formation of a boron-lithium system, with chemical formula B3Li.


A quick n/ratio calculation shows that in this reaction, the boron powder is limiting.


All of the remaining boron therefore reacts with lithium. To calculate exactly how much B3Li we’ve created, let’s do another ice table:

units are mol 3 B Li B3Li
I 0.533 0.40 0
C -0.533 -0.178 +0.178
E 0 0.222 0.178

What’s in our vessel after adding boron?

We have the following gas mixture in our vessel:

Helium gas, He(g): 1.00 mol

Helium is an inert noble gas that will probably remain in the vessel until the end of the experiment. It’s used in party balloons.

Borane gas, B2H6(g): 0.233 mol

We made this today. Borane is used in the synthesis of organic chemicals via a process called hydroboration. An example of hydroboration is shown below.


At the bottom of the vessel, there’s a sludge, which contains the following liquids and solids:

Molten lithium, Li(l): 0.22 mol

Lithium is used in the production of ceramics, batteries, grease, pharmaceuticals and many other applications. We’ve got 0.22 moles of lithium, which is about 1.5 grams.

Beryllium powder, Be(s): 1.00 mol

Beryllium is used as an alloying agent in producing beryllium copper, which is used in springs, electrical contacts, spot-welding electrodes, and non-sparking tools.

Lithium hydride, LiH(s): 0.60 mol

Lithium hydride is used in shielding nuclear reactors and also has the potential to store hydrogen gas in vehicles. Lithium hydride is highly reactive with water.

Boron-lithium system, B3Li(s): 0.178 mol

We made this today… but what is it? Not much is known about this compound – in fact, it doesn’t even have a name other than “boron-lithium system, B3Li”. It’ll probably decompose eventually in our experiment – maybe when we alter the pressure or temperature of the vessel at some later stage. We’ll need to keep an eye on this one.

The original H2(g) and B(s) have been reacted completely in our experiment.

What’s the pressure in our vessel now?

At the end of our reaction, the temperature of our vessel is still set at 350 °C and the pressure of the gaseous phase inside the vessel can be calculated to be a moderate 638 kPa as follows:


*It should also be noted that some evidence exists for a reaction between LiH and BH3, forming Li(BH4). The reaction seems to take place stepwise with increasing temperature. A quick read of this paper suggests that in our vessel, which is at 350 °C, any Li(BH4) formed would actually break back down into boron powder and hydrogen gas, which would in turn react with each other and with lithium metal to form BH3 and LiH again. The net result would be a negligible net gain of LiH and a negligible net loss of boron powder. We will continue calculating this Periodic Table Smoothie under the assumption that if any Li(BH4) forms, it breaks down before we add the next element, and the overall effect on our system is negligible.

**Li(BH4) is an interesting compound: it’s been touted as a potential means of storing hydrogen gas in vehicles – it’s safer and releases hydrogen more readily than LiH, which was mentioned above.[5]

Next week, we’ll add element number 6, carbon, and see what happens.


  1. “Borane”. Wikipedia. N.p., 2016. Web. 14 Apr. 2016.
  2. Okamoto, H. “The B-Li (Boron-Lithium) System”. Bulletin of Alloy Phase Diagrams 10.3 (1989): 230-232.
  3. Matkovich, V. I. Boron And Refractory Borides. Berlin: Springer-Verlag, 1977. Print.
  4. Gaulé, G. K. Boron, Volume 2: Preparation, Properties And Applications. New York: Plenum Press, 1965. Print.
  5. Saldan, Ivan. “A Prospect For Libh4 As On-Board Hydrogen Storage”. Open Chemistry 9.5 (2011): n. pag. Web.

Let’s add beryllium powder

‘Beryllium’ page from Theodore Gray’s book, The Elements

Initial condition

  • H2(g): 0.70 mol
  • He(g): 1.00 mol
  • Li(s): 0.40 mol (still solid: it melts at 180.5 degrees)
  • LiH(s): 0.60 mol
  • Pressure = 525.5 kPa
  • Temperature = 99°C

No reactions!

Beryllium doesn’t react with any of the things in the vessel: H2(g), He(g), Li(s) or LiH(s). My one mole of beryllium powder (which would cost me over $70) would just sit at the bottom of the vessel doing nothing.

With not much else to write about in the Periodic Table Smoothie this week, it might be a good idea to calculate how much this Periodic Table Smoothie would have cost in real life.

Element Cost per kg[1]  Molar mass  Cost per mole
H2  $              4.00 2  $       0.008
He  $            52.00 4  $       0.21
Li  $          270.00 6.941  $       1.87
Be  $      7,840.00 9.01  $    70.64
B (next week)  $    11,140.00 10.811  $  120.43
TOTAL cost of 1.00 mol of each of the first five elements  $        193.16


The addition of beryllium was highly uneventful. The vessel still contains the following:

  • H2(g): 0.70 mol
  • He(g): 1.00 mol
  • Li(s): 0.40 mol (still solid: it melts at 180.5 degrees)
  • LiH(s): 0.60 mol
  • Pressure = 525.5 kPa
  • Temperature = 99°C

We’ll add boron next week and see what happens.

Let’s add lithium powder

Lithium: a page from Theodore Gray's book The Elements
Lithium: a page from Theodore Gray’s book The Elements

Initial condition

  • Hydrogen gas, H2(g): 1.00 mol
  • Helium gas, He(g): 1.00 mol

Last week, our vessel contained a mixture of hydrogen and helium gases. No chemical reactions have occurred so far, but that is about to change. Today, we’ll add 1.00 mole of lithium powder to the mixture and observe our first chemical reaction.

What does lithium look like?

Lithium is a soft, silvery metal with the consistency of Parmesan cheese. Lumps of lithium can be cut with a knife and it’s so light that it floats on oil. It would float on water as well if it weren’t for the violent reaction that would take place. Lithium is very well-known by science students for its ability to react with water, producing hydrogen gas and an alkaline solution of lithium hydroxide.


There’s no water in our vessel so the above reaction won’t actually take place. We’ve only got hydrogen gas and helium gas inside. Let’s see if our powdered lithium reacts with either of those gases.

Will the lithium powder react in our vessel?

Yes! Lithium reacts with hydrogen gas very slowly. One paper by NASA cited a reaction occurring at 29°C but the yield and rate were both very low. Because I want to initiate as many reactions as possible in this experiment, I’m going to heat my vessel to 99°C by immersing it in a bath of hot water. According to the NASA paper, this temperature would give my reaction a 60% yield after two hours.


Lithium hydride is beginning to collect in the bottom of my 10-litre vessel. It’s a grey-to-colourless solid with a high melting point.

How much of each substance do we now have in the vessel?

First, we need to know which reagent is limiting. We can calculate this by using the following rule:


Let’s substitute the values into the expression for all the reactants in this reaction: Li(s) and H2(g).


If the yield was 100% (i.e. a complete reaction), I’d expect to make 1.00 mole of lithium hydride. However, we’re only going to get 0.60 moles because according to the NASA paper, the yield of this reaction is only 60% at my chosen temperature.

Let’s do an ‘ice’ table to find out how much of each reactant reacts, and hence how much of each substance we have left in our reactor vessel.

units are mol 2Li H2 2LiH
I (initial) 1.00 1.00 0
C (change) -0.60 -0.30 +0.60
E (equilibrium) 0.40 0.70 0.60

By the end of our reaction, we’d have:

  • H2(g): 0.70 mol
  • He(g): 1.00 mol
  • Li(s): 0.40 mol (still solid: it melts at 180.5 degrees)
  • LiH(s): 0.60 mol

What does 0.60 mol LiH look like?

Let’s use the density formula to try find out how many spoonfuls of LiH we’ve created.


We’ve made 6.11 millilitres of lithium hydride powder! That’s a heaped teaspoon of LiH.

What’s the resulting pressure in the vessel?

Our elevated temperature of 99°C will have caused a considerable pressure increase inside the vessel.


That’s 5.2 atmospheres (atm) of pressure, which is quite high. A typical car tyre is about 2 atm for comparison.

What if the vessel exploded?

BANG. The contents of the vessel, after they’ve rained down on an unsuspecting crowd, would react explosively with the water and other compounds in our bodies to produce caustic lithium hydroxide and toxic lithium salts. I recommend stepping away from the vessel and behind a thick safety screen at this point. Even though our imaginary vessel is quite strong, we better put on a lab coat and safety glasses as well—just in case.

Conclusion after adding lithium powder

  • H2(g): 0.70 mol
  • He(g): 1.00 mol
  • Li(s): 0.40 mol (still solid: it melts at 180.5 degrees)
  • LiH(s): 0.60 mol
  • Pressure = 525.5 kPa
  • Temperature = 99°C

Next week, we’ll add 1.00 mole of beryllium to the vessel and see what happens.

Reference: Smith, R. L.; Miser, J. W. (1963). Compilation of the properties of lithium hydride. NASA

Let’s add helium gas

‘Helium’ page from Theodore Gray’s amazing book, The Elements

Last week, we put 1.00 mole of hydrogen gas into a cylinder. The resulting pressure was 243 kPa and the temperature was maintained steady at 20°C. This week, we’ll add 1.00 mol of helium gas, He(g), to the vessel and see what happens.

Will the helium react with the hydrogen?

No. Helium is completely inert. Hydrogen and helium will co-exist without undergoing any chemical reactions.

What will the resulting pressure be?

This is a very simple calculation. With 2.00 moles of gas in the vessel, the pressure would be double what it was before. This is known as Dalton’s law of partial pressures: the total pressure in a vessel is equal to the sum of all the pressure of the individual gases in the vessel.


Let’s convert that into pounds per square inch (psi) for easy comparison with everyday objects.


That’s about the same as a hard bicycle tyre.

How fast are the molecules moving?

Remember from last week that when our vessel contained only hydrogen gas, the molecules were moving around randomly with an average speed of 1760 metres per second.

Kinetic molecular theory states that the kinetic energy of a gas is directly proportional to the temperature of that gas. The formula for kinetic energy is shown below:


At constant temperature, heavier particles move more slowly than lighter ones. Even though they have the same kinetic energy, helium atoms at 20 °C move slower than hydrogen molecules at 20 °C because they have almost exactly double the mass. How much slower does the helium move? Let’s find out.


The molecules are moving at 1245 metres per second, or 4482 km/h. This is slower than the hydrogen gas by a factor of exactly root 2.

The molecules in our vessel could orbit the Earth in just 6 hours if they were to move in a single direction at this speed. Because the motion of particles in our gas mixture is random – they jiggle about rather than move in a single direction – they stay securely in the vessel.

Conclusion after adding helium

No chemistry’s happening in the vessel – not yet. Molecules of hydrogen and helium are simply co-existing in our vessel, bouncing off each other at different speeds and not interacting in any other way.

  • Hydrogen gas, H2(g): 1.00 mol
  • Helium gas, He(g): 1.00 mol

For some chemistry to happen, we’ll need to add the next element, lithium. We’ll do that next week.