Thursday, August 03, 2006

Burn Bunsen Burn

Burn Bunsen Burn

I did real chemistry today. Not wire twisting, not ion counting, not pansy-faced computer modeling. Real, labcoat chemistry. It was nothing intricate, or complicated. All I actually did was thermally decompose some hydrates and nitrates. But the manner in which I performed this task is what makes me a bona-fide chemist. When I executed this decomposition, I did it using a pair of tongs, a crucible, and a Bunsen burner.

The Bunsen burner is the defining apparatus of chemistry. I don’t care if you can fold polypeptides into protein bowties. I don’t care if you can measure parts per squillion in refractory oxides. I don’t even care if you can synthesize a living dachshund from first principles, using only a plaster cast, a bag of fertilizer, and a bottle of ten-year-old scotch. If you don’t use a Bunsen burner to perform these tasks, it isn’t real chemistry.

Now, watching ammonium nitrate boil and bubble and decompose over the Bunsen burner* may not seem like the most exciting task in the world, but it was actually a pretty big deal for me. This particular decomposition was the final step in three weeks of aqueous chemistry, and the first sample, the analytical blank that the professor performed for us peons as a method demonstration, ended up coming out a dud.

The other techo and I, who basically tried to copy the professor’s protocol as best we could, were obviously a bit nervous. So nervous, in fact, that I started weighing everything. Even the intermediate steps, which were totally meaningless. But my crucible boiled and bubbled, the steam turned from white to brown, and eventually, at the end of the day, we had a 101% yield. A second weigh gave us 103%. And it continued to rise (the product was a wee bit hydroscopic). So compared to the 57% from the failed run, it was a glorious number to behold.

I finished the stabilization and homogenization this evening, and started preparing the final product for analysis; with a little luck, I’ll be getting data by 9 tomorrow morning. With the Goldschmidt conference only three weeks away, I really do need to start collecting some data. It seemed to be a good idea at the time, but now I’m thinking that submitting a placeholder abstract might have been a wee bit riskier than I had originally anticipated. We’ll see what happens tomorrow.

* If Tim McVeigh had used a Bunsen burner and crucible to decompose his ammonium nitrate instead of mixing it with racecar fuel, then he, and 167 other people, would still be alive today.


Jul said...

Psst, you have been tagged.

Anonymous said...

Gosh, I haven't worked with that kind of equipment in a looong time. It's wierd going from a lab to sitting in front of a computer or in a logging truck. :)

C W Magee said...

A logging truck? Do you cut down trees as well as drilling for oil?