Tag Archives: experiment

Let’s add oxygen, fluorine and neon gases

Oxygen from Theodore Gray's amazing book, The Elements
Oxygen from Theodore Gray’s amazing book, The Elements

This post concludes the Periodic Table Smoothie experiment.

Recall that we’ve just finished adding one mole of nitrogen gas and created a bizarre boron polymer at the bottom of our vessel. The temperature was 350 °C and the pressure in our vessel was 891 kPa.

Today, we’re going to add 1.00 mole of oxygen gas, stand back and observe.

Nothing happens.

This is disappointing news.

Many of the substances in our vessel react (more accurately, explode) in the presence of oxygen but the ignition temperature for all of those explosions to take place is at least 500 °C. The temperature of our vessel is set at just 350 °C. At this temperature, nothing would actually happen.

There’s not enough activation energy to break bonds in the reactant particles in order to get the reaction started. We call this activation energy (EA) in chemistry. If we were to add a source of excessive heat (e.g. a matchstick), the vessel would explode.

Should we heat up the vessel to 500 °C and blow up the experiment right here?

If we did, the following reactions would happen:


Enough of these reactions – particularly the first three – are sufficiently exothermic to trigger a chain reaction – at least up to the reaction of oxygen with beryllium carbide. The vessel would bang, explode, and shatter. The helium would float away, dangerous lithium amide would fly out sideways, and polyborazine powder, whatever that is, would land on the floor.

Let’s not ignite our experiment – not yet.

Conclusion after adding 1.00 mole of oxygen gas

Substance Amount in mol
He(g) 1.000
Be(s) 0.514
LiH(s) 0.000
Li2C2(s) 0.272
B2H6(g) 0.000
Be2C(s) 0.175
H2(g) 0.007
BeC2(s) 0.136
CH4(g) 0.009
N2(g) 0.552
NH3(g) 0.154
LiNH2(s) 0.277
polyborazine 12.194 grams

Pressure: 891 kPa (higher than before due to the addition of nitrogen gas)
Temperature: 350 °C (vessel is still being maintained at constant temperature)

Oxygen was relatively uneventful. Let’s add fluorine and see what happens.

Let’s add fluorine gas

Elements by Theodore Gray

The following three reactions would all occur as 1.00 mole of fluorine gas is added:


These two products are quite interesting:

  • HF, hydrogen fluoride, an aqueous solution of which was used by Breaking Bad’s Walter White to dissolve evidence (his victims)
  • NF3, nitrogen trifluoride, is used as an etching agent when making printed circuit boards (PCBs)

Let’s add neon gas

Elements by Theodore Gray

When 1.00 mole of neon gas is added, the total pressure inside the vessel increases but no reaction occurs. The concentrations of all the other gases present are unaffected.

The End

That concludes our Periodic Table Smoothie experiment. The most interesting conclusion was the discovery of polyborazine, the bizarre solid that collected at the bottom of the vessel.

Also of interest was how easily we created ammonia, one of the simplest of biological compounds, just by mixing elements together. Could the compounds necessary for life be so easy to create that their existence is an inevitable consequence of the Big Bang? Is life inevitable? If the Big Bang were to happen all over again, would life occur? And would it look any different?

Possibly not.

Let’s add carbon (graphite) powder

‘Carbon’ page from Theodore Gray’s amazing book: The Elements

Today, we’re going to add 1.00 mole of carbon to our vessel. After adding boron last week, we left our vessel locked at 350 °C and with a pressure of 638 kPa. These reactions are taking place at 350 °C and constant volume (exactly 10 litres). Pressure inside the vessel will therefore change over time.

Allotropes of carbon

Carbon has various allotropes (structural arrangements of an element). Diamond is extremely strong and highly unreactive, while graphite is soft and brittle. The differences are all due to the type of bonding between carbon atoms. In diamond, carbon atoms are bonded by four strong covalent bonds with the surrounding atoms in a strong, hard three-dimensional ‘network lattice’. Graphite owes its softness and brittleness to the fact that its carbon atoms are bonded by only three strong covalent bonds in a two-dimensional ‘layer lattice’. Individual layers are very strong, but the layers can be separated by just the slightest disturbance. Touching graphite lightly onto paper will remove layers of carbon atoms and place them onto the page (such as in a pencil). Using a diamond the same way would likely tear the paper instead.

For this reason, I’m going to put graphite into the vessel instead of diamond. Diamond is so strong and inert that it’s unlikely to do any interesting chemistry in our experiment. Graphite, on the other hand, will.

The following seven chemical reactions will take place after adding carbon (graphite) powder

As soon as the carbon powder enters the vessel, it will begin to react with the following three species as follows:


The ethyne produced in the third reaction will then react with any lithium and beryllium remaining in the vessel as follows:


The hydrogen gas produced by the above two reactions will then react with lithium and carbon (if there’s any left) as follows:


These reactions have the potential to all occur at the same time. Tracking them properly would require calculus and lots of kinetics data including the activation energy of each reaction and the rate constant for each equation. Quick searches on the National Chemical Kinetics Database yields no results for most of these equations, which means we won’t be able to use a computer model to calculate exact quantities of each product. Instead, I’m going to run a computer simulation using Excel that makes the following three assumptions:

  • all these reactions occur at the same rate;
  • all these reactions are first-order with respect to the limiting reagent;
  • all these reactions are zeroth-order with respect to reagents in excess.

The results will be a close approximation of reality – they’ll be as close to reality as we can get with the data that’s available.

Here are the results of the simulation

Here’s a graph of the simulation running for 24 steps. Exactly one mole of carbon powder is added at step 5.

Periodic Table Smoothie - Let's Add Carbon Carbon quickly reacts to form lithium carbide, beryllium carbide and two organic molecules: methane and ethyne
Carbon quickly reacts to form lithium carbide, beryllium carbide and two organic molecules: methane and ethyne

Summary of results

The results are incredible! We’ve made ethyne and methane, both of which have the potential to do some really interesting chemistry later on. I’m hoping that we can make some more complex organic molecules after nitrogen and oxygen are added – maybe even aminoethane – let’s see.

Hydrogen has also re-formed. I’m hoping that this gas lingers for long enough to react with our next element, nitrogen: we might end up making ammonia, NH3(g).

You may have noticed that I removed the “boron-lithium system” from the vessel. The 0.178 moles we created are now stored separately and will not be allowed to react any further. With such little literature about the reactivity of B3Li, it’s impossible to predict what compounds it’ll form later on. B3Li is so rare that doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page.

Pressure in the vessel increases to 718 kPa after carbon is added
Pressure in the vessel increases to 718 kPa after carbon is added
mass of sludge in periodic table smoothie after adding carbon.png
Mass of sludge in the vessel changes after adding carbon

Here’s what’s present in the vessel after adding carbon

Substance Moles present after 500 ‘steps’
He(g) 1.00000
Be(s) 0.51435
LiH(s) 0.27670
Li2C2(s) 0.27165
B2H6(g) 0.23300
Be2C(s) 0.17470
H2(g) 0.14267
BeC2(s) 0.13625
CH4(g) 0.00949

We also have 0.178 moles of B3Li stored separately in another vessel.

Next week, we’ll add nitrogen and see what happens.

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.

RSC runs massive crystal-growing competition open to all students worldwide!

RSC Global Experiment 2014 Art of Crystallography

Compete with thousands of other students from around the world by taking part in this epic crystal-growing experiment aimed at students aged 7-16, hosted by the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC).

The aim of the Global Experiemnt is to find the exact conditions that allow you to grow the biggest, most impressive crystals of alum, epsom salts, potassium nitrate, table salt and sucrose. Students do the entire process themselves, then post their pictures and data onto the RSC’s global, interactive results map. Here’s their instructional video:

Through getting your students involved in this year’s Global Experiment, you’ll be teaching them about dissolving, saturation and crystal growth. You’ll be engaging them in a fun, interactive science project they can easily continue at home. The RSC has even provided instruction packs, lesson plans and an instructional video to make the planning process as easy as possible for teachers.

It’s free to take part, and no specialist equipment is required. It can be done entirely using a few cheap things purchased from a local store. It can be done at home, at school or at an after-school science club.

The RSC has teamed up with the International Union of Crystallography to make this year’s Global Experiment officially a part of the International year of crystallography.

The RSC’s Global Experiment has been a great success in recent years. It follows the 2013 Global Experiment: measuring the quantity of vitamin C in fruits and vegetables, and the 2012 Global Experiment: Chemistry in the Olympics.

For more information, or to register, go to http://www.rsc.org/learn-chemistry/collections/online-experimentation/collaborative-chemistry/global-experiment-2014, and check out some existing entries on their Pinterest board.