Marguerite Perey: When The Lab Assistant Gets The Credit

Most people obtain a bachelor’s degree before getting their masters, and even that is a prerequisite for a doctorate. Most people, however, don’t discover a new chemical element.

Marguerite Perey graduated with a chemistry diploma from Paris’ Technical School of Women’s Education in 1929, and applied for work at the Curie Institute, at the time one of the leading chemistry and physics labs in the world. She was hired, and put to work cataloging and preparing samples of the element actinium. This element had been discovered thirty years before by a chemist who had also been working in the Curie laboratory, but this was the height of the chemical revolution and the studies and research must continue.

When Marie Curie died in 1934, the discoverer of actinium, André-Louis Debierne, continued his research and Perey kept providing samples. Marguerite’s work was recognized, and in time she was promoted from a simple lab assistant to a  radiochemist. It would not be an exaggeration to say that Marguerite was, at the time, the world’s leading expert in the preparation of actinium. This expertise would lead her to the discovery of the bottom left corner of the periodic table: francium, element 87, the least electronegative element, and arguably the most difficult naturally occurring element to isolate.

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How Pure is this Cup of Joe? Coffee, Conspiracy, and Citizen Science

Have you ever thought about coffee purity? It’s more something you’d encounter with prescription or elicit drugs, but coffee is actually a rather valuable commodity. If a seller can make the actual grounds go a bit further by stretching the brew with alternative ingredients there becomes an incentive to cheat.

If this sounds like the stuff rumors are made of, that’s because it is! Here in Ho Chi Minh City there are age-old rumors a coffee syndicate that masterfully passes off adulterated product as pure, high-grade coffee. Rumors are one thing, but the local media started picking up on these suspicions and that caught my attention. I decided to look to simple chemistry to see if I could prove or disprove the story.

What we want to investigate is whether price and coffee purity are related. If they are, then after accounting for the effect of price, we will want to know whether proximity to the market where artificial coffee flavoring is sold has an effect on coffee purity.

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Yellowing: the Plastic Equivalent of a Sunburn

Your fancy white electronic brick of consumer electronics started off white, but after some time it yellowed and became brittle. This shouldn’t have happened; plastic is supposed to last forever. It turns out that plastic enclosures are vulnerable to the same things as skin, and the effects are similar. When they are stared at by the sun, the damage is done even though it might not be visible to you for quite some time.

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Rosalind Franklin Saw DNA First

It’s a standard science trivia question: Who discovered the structure of DNA? With the basic concepts of molecular biology now taught at a fairly detailed level in grade school, and with DNA being so easy to isolate that it makes a good demonstration project for school or home, everyone knows the names of Watson and Crick. But not many people know the story behind one of the greatest scientific achievements of the 20th century, or the name of the scientist without whose data Watson and Crick were working blind: Rosalind Franklin.

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Tinning Solution From the Hardware Store

Making your own printed circuit board at home often leads to a board which looks homemade. Exposed copper is one of the tell-tale signs. That may be your aesthetic and we won’t cramp your style, but exposed copper is harder to solder than tinned copper and it likes to oxidize over time. Tinning at home can bring you a step closer to having a full-featured board. In the video after the break, famed chemist [nurdrage] shows us how to make tinning solution at home in the video below the break.

There are only three ingredients to make the solution and you can probably find them all at a corner hardware store.

  • Hydrochloric acid. Also known as muriatic acid.
  • Solid lead-free solder with ≥ 95% tin
  • Silver polish containing thiourea

Everything to pull this off is in the first three minutes of the video. [nurdrage] goes on to explain the chemistry behind this reaction. It doesn’t require electricity or heat but heat will speed up the reactions. With this kind of simplicity, there’s no reason to make untinned circuit boards in your kitchen anymore. If aesthetics are very important, home tinning yourself allows you to mask off certain regions and have exposed copper and tin on the same board.

[nurdrage] is no stranger to Hackaday, he even has an article here about making your own PCB etchants and a hotplate to kick your PCB production into high gear.

Thanks for the tip, [drnbutyllithium].

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The Hackaday Prize: Growing Your Own Soil

When a rainforest is clearcut for agricultural use, we only see the surface problems: fewer trees, destruction of plant and animal habitats, and countless other negative effects on the environment. A lurking problem, however, is that the soil is often non-ideal for farming. When the soil is exhausted, the farmers move further into the rainforest and repeat the process.

In the Amazon, however, there are pockets of man-made soil that are incredibly nutrient-dense. Figuring out how to make this soil, known as Terra Preta, on a massive scale would limit the amount of forest destruction by providing farmers a soil with more longevity which will, in turn, limit the encroachment on the rainforest. That’s the goal of this Hackaday Prize entry by [Leonardo Zuniga]: a pyrolysis chemical reactor that can make this soil by turning organic matter into a type of charcoal that can be incorporated into the soil to make Terra Preta.

As a bonus to making this nutrient-dense soil on a massive scale, this reactor also generates usable energy as a byproduct of processing organic waste, which goes several steps beyond simple soil enrichment. If successful and scalable, this project could result in more efficient farming techniques, greater yields, and, best of all, less damage to the environment and less impact on the rainforests.

Sort Out Chemical Storage For Your Shop

There is one constant in the world of hardware hacker’s workshops, be they a private workshop in your garage or a public hackspace, and it goes something like this:

Everybody’s a safety expert in whatever it is they are working with, right up until the accident.

In other words, it is very tempting to harbour a cavalier attitude to something that either you are familiar with or the hazards of which you do not understand, and this breeds an environment in which mishaps become a distinct possibility.

As hardware people, we are familiar with basic tool safety or electrical safety. The chances are that we’ve had it drummed into us at some time in our growing up, by a lab supervisor, a workshop teacher, or a parent. That you as readers and I as writer have survived this long is testament enough to the success of that education. But what about those areas in which we may not have received such an education, those things which we either encounter rarely or seem harmless enough that their safety needn’t be our concern? Chemicals, for example: everything from glue through solvents and soldering consumables to PCB chemicals and even paint. It all seems safe enough, what could possibly go wrong? The answer to that question is probably something most of us would prefer never to find out, so it’s worth looking in to how a well-run workshop can manage its chemicals in as safe a manner as possible.

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