Retrotechtacular: The Golden Book of Chemistry Experiments

Back in “the old days” (that is, when I was a kid), kids led lives of danger and excitement. We rode bikes with no protective gear. We stayed out roaming the streets after dark without adult supervision. We had toy guns that looked like real ones. Dentists gave us mercury to play with. We also blew things up and did other dangerous science experiments.

If you want a taste of what that was like, you might enjoy The Golden Book of Chemistry Experiments. The book, first published in 1960, offers to show you how to set up a home laboratory and provides 200 experiments. The colorfully illustrated book shows you how to do some basic lab work as well as offering some science history and terminology.

Want to make oxygen? There’s several methods on page 27. Page 28 covers making hydrogen. To test the hydrogen for purity, the suggest you collect a test tube full, invert it, and stick a match up to the tube. If the hydrogen is pure it will burn with a pop noise. If air is mixed it, it will explode. Yeah, that sound safe to us.

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Chemical Hacking at a Store Near You

Imagine for a minute that you aren’t an electronic-savvy Hackaday reader. But you find an old chemistry book at a garage sale and start reading it. It has lots of interesting looking experiments, but they all require chemicals with strange exotic names. One of them is ferric chloride. You could go find a scientific supply company, but that’s expensive and often difficult to deal with as an individual (for example, 2.5 liters of nitric acid costs over $300 for a case of six at a common lab supply company). Where would you go?

As an astute electronics guy (or gal) you probably know that ferric chloride is common for PCB etching, so you would check the electronic store down the street or maybe Radio Shack if you are lucky enough to find one that still stocks it.

So sometimes knowing where to look for a chemical is a key part of acquiring it, especially when the names are not the same. For example, do you have any amylose? No? That’s corn starch. Want to try making your own cadmium sulfide light sensor? Go to the art supply store and ask for cadmium yellow pigment. Need magnesium carbonate? Stop by a sporting goods store and ask for athlete’s chalk.

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See if You Can Reverse Engineer This Scrap Metal Battery

We got quite a few tips in about a paper from Vanderbilt about a cool scrap metal battery they’ve been playing with. They made some pretty bold claims and when we fed the numbers in they pretty much say they’ve got a battery you can make at home, that can hold half as much as a lead acid, can be made out of scraps in a cave (even if you’re not Tony Stark), charge super fast,and can cycle 5,000 times without appreciable capacity loss.  Needless to say that’s super cool.

Of course, science research is as broken as ever and the paper was hidden behind a paywall. Through mysterious powers such as the library and bothering people we were able to get past this cunning defense and read the paper. Unfortunately the paper reads more like a brag track than a useful experimental guide on how to build the dang battery. It’s also possible that our copy was missing some pages. Anyway, we want to do science!

Anyway, here’s what we know. The battery is based on an ancient battery called the Baghdad Battery. The ancient battery supposedly used iron and copper with a mystery electrolyte. The scrap battery, however, is made from scrap iron and scrap brass. The iron makes sense, but why brass? Well, brass has copper in it, and you can still get at it chemically even if it’s alloyed.

To that end, the next step was to throw some oxygen atoms in with those pesky Fe and Cu ones. The goal is to get a redox reaction going. If you do it right you can achieve pseudocapacitance. To to this the researchers used “common household chemicals and voltages” to anodize the iron and copper inside the brass. The press photo have them holding a gallon of muratic acid, if that helps. We don’t know, but if they can jam a few oxygen atoms in there then so can we!

After that it’s all about sitting the electrodes in a bath of potassium hydroxide. We guess you can scrape the inside of an AA for that. Anyway, the paper’s light on process but the battery seems really cool. They’re not pursuing this research for commercialization, instead going the OSHW route. They hope to get to the point where anyone can just grind up a bunch of scrap steel and brass, maybe throw it in a birdcage, anodize it, and get a super long life battery for grid use for less than a lead acid. If any of you manage to build one of these drop us a tip!



A Quick History of the Battery

[Colin] tells us it all started with [Benjamin Franklin]’s battery of capacitors. It was a bunch of leyden jars hooked together in series and there wasn’t even chemistry involved yet, but the nomenclature stuck and it wasn’t long before it evolved into the word we use today.

For the word to change, things got chemical. [Alessandro Volta] introduces his voltaic pile. Once scientists latched onto the idea of a stable reaction giving a steady stream of magic pixies for them to play with, it wasn’t long before the great minds were turning their attention to improving this new technology.

In the classic game of one-upmanship loved by technical people all over, we quickly skip forward to the modern era. An era where no man is unburdened with the full weight of constant communication. It’s all thanks to a technology that’s theoretically unchanged from that first pile. Video after the break.

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Etching Your Own Metal

It’s been said that with enough soap, one could blow up just about anything. A more modern interpretation of this thought is that with enough knowledge of chemistry, anything is possible. To that end, [Peter] has certainly been doing a good job of putting his knowledge to good use. He recently worked out a relatively inexpensive and easy way to etch metals using some chemistry skill and a little bit of electricity.

After preparing a set of stencils and cleaning the metal work surface, [Peter] sets his work piece in a salt solution. A metal bar is inserted in the other end of the bath, and both it and the work piece are connected to electrodes. The flow of electricity removes some metal from the exposed work surfaces, producing whatever patterns [Peter] wants.

One interesting thing that [Peter] found is that the voltage must stay under 6 volts. This is probably part of the reason it’s relatively easy to etch with even a wall wort. Above that, the iron work piece produces a different ion which can clog the work surface and create undesirable effects. Additionally, since his first experiments with this process he has upgraded the salt bath with magnetic stirrers. He also gets the best results in a very cold environment.

There are many other uses for etching metals, too. Creating your own printed circuit boards comes to mind, but there are plenty of other uses as well. What will you do with this technique?

Ask Hackaday: How Do You Make A Hotplate?

Greetings fellow nerds. The Internet’s favorite artificial baritone chemist has a problem. His hotplates burn up too fast. He needs your help to fix this problem.

[NurdRage] is famous around these parts for his very in-depth explorations of chemistry including the best ways to etch a PCB, building a thermometer probe with no instructions, and chemical synthesis that shouldn’t be performed by anyone without years of experience in a lab. Over the past few years, he’s had a problem: hotplates suck. The heating element is usually poorly constructed, and right now he has two broken hotplates on his bench. These things aren’t cheap, either: a bare-bones hotplate with a magnetic stirrer runs about $600.

Now, [NurdRage] is asking for help. He’s contacted a few manufacturers in China to get a hundred or so of these hotplate heating elements made. Right now, the cost for a mica and metal foil hotplate is about $30 / piece, with a minimum order quantity of 100. That’s $3,000 that could be better spent on something a bit more interesting than a heating element, and this is where you come in: how do you build the heating element for a hotplate, and do it cheaply?

If you buy a hotplate from the usual lab equipment supplier, you’ll get a few pieces of mica and a thin trace of metal foil. Eventually, the metal foil will oxidize, and the entire hotplate will stop working. Repairs can be done with copper tape, but by the time that repair is needed, the heating element is already on its way out.

The requirements for this heating element include a maximum temperature of around 350 ºC. That’s a fair bit hotter than any PCB-based heat bed from a 3D printer gets, so consider that line of reasoning a dead end. This temperature is also above what most resins, thermoplastics, and composites can handle, which is why these hotplates use mica as an insulator.

Right now, [NurdRage] will probably end up spending $3,000 for a group buy of these heating elements. That’s really not that bad – for the price of five hotplates, he’ll have enough heating elements to last through the rest of his YouTube career. There must be a better way, though, so if you have an idea of how to make a high-temperature heating element the DIY way, leave a note in the comments.

Lego-Like Chemistry and Biology Erector Set

A team of researchers and students at the University of California, Riverside has created a Lego-like system of blocks that enables users to custom build chemical and biological research instruments. The system of 3D-printed blocks can create a variety of scientific tools.

The blocks, which are called Multifluidic Evolutionary Components (MECs) appeared in the journal PLOS ONE. Each block in the system performs a basic lab instrument task (pumping fluids, making measurements or interfacing with a user, for example). Since the blocks are designed to work together, users can build apparatus — like bioreactors for making alternative fuels or acid-base titration tools for high school chemistry classes — rapidly and efficiently. The blocks are especially well suited for resource-limited settings, where a library of blocks can create a variety of different research and diagnostic tools.

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