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Friday, July 25, 2008

A nod for elemental videos from U Nottingham

My assistant Karen, knowing that I am fond of chemicals (being an engineer in this specialty), sent me the link to The University of Nottingham's periodic table of videos. If you are a pyromaniac, check out their flick on phosphorus. I learned that an average person processes 70 kilos of phosphorous -- an essential element for human life. That makes me wonder if the stories of people spontaneously combusting could be true!

I enjoyed the video on arsenic -- an element I worked with on my first job after graduating in chemical engineering from the University of Minnesota. My supervisor handed me several bottles of varying forms of arsenic and suggested that I dope them into a quantity of shale oil. My mission was to experiment on adding various metals that might tie up the arsenic in the solid ash. This toxic element occurs naturally in shale oil, which, when burned, creates an oxide that sublimates on nearby greenery. For example, the rabbits eating outside the shale-oil power plant might go cotton-tail up after enjoying their salad. I had no idea how to construct a lab-scale combustion chamber so I simply poured some oil into a ceramic 'canoe', added a pinch of arsenic, put the canoe into a pyrex cylinder and heated it up with tube furnace. Sometimes the oil would vaporize and explode -- shotting the stopper around the lab like a rubber bullet. Thus I took the precaution of standing in the hall, which made some colleagues wonder what I was doing all day.

My supervisor took a one month vacation while I completed this introductory project as a new engineer. He looked surprised to see me upon his return.

One thing I learned about arsenic from the video guy with the crazy hair -- research professor Martyn Poliakoff of the University of Nottingham -- was that in the Victorian age it was an essential element for the green dye used in wallpaper. Unfortunately, when water seeped into the walls, the mold converted the arsenic to a volatile form that killed a number of homeowners. I'd have thought the arsenic would have killed the mold, but I suppose that would be too convenient.


  • At 5:17 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    arsenic was also sometimes used to preserve animals in the 18th century.

    as some preserved animals are slightly green. (though not too many are around now)


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