Common Chemicals Combine To Make Metallic Sodium

There’s no debating that metallic sodium is exciting stuff, but getting your hands on some can be problematic, what with the need to ship it in a mineral oil bath to keep it from exploding. So why not make your own? No problem, just pass a few thousand amps of current through an 800° pot of molten table salt. Easy as pie.

Thankfully, there’s now a more approachable method courtesy of this clever chemical hack that makes metallic sodium in quantity without using electrolysis. [NurdRage], aka [Dr. N. Butyl Lithium], has developed a process to extract metallic sodium from sodium hydroxide. In fact, everything [NurdRage] used to make the large slugs of sodium is easily and cheaply available – NaOH from drain cleaner, magnesium from fire starters, and mineral oil to keep things calm. The reaction requires an unusual catalyst – menthol – which is easily obtained online. He also gave the reaction a jump-start with a small amount of sodium metal, which can be produced by the lower-yielding but far more spectacular thermochemical dioxane method; lithium harvested from old batteries can be substituted in a pinch. The reaction will require a great deal of care to make sure nothing goes wrong, but in the end, sizable chunks of the soft, gray metal are produced at phenomenal yields of 90% and more. The video below walks you through the whole process.

It looks as though [NurdRage]’s method can be scaled up substantially or done in repeated small batches to create even more sodium. But what do you do when you make too much sodium metal and need to dispose of it? Not a problem.

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Retrotechtacular: Disposing of Sodium, 1947-Style

A high school friend once related the story about how his father, a chemist for an environmental waste concern, disposed of a problematic quantity of metallic sodium by dumping it into one of the more polluted rivers in southern New England. Despite the fact that the local residents were used to seeing all manner of noxious hijinx in the river, the resulting explosion was supposedly enough to warrant a call to the police and an expeditious retreat back to the labs. It was a good story, but not especially believable back in the day.

After seeing this video of how the War Department dealt with surplus sodium in 1947, I’m not so sure. I had always known how reactive sodium is, ever since demonstrations in chemistry class where a flake of the soft gray metal would dance about in a petri dish full of water and eventually light up for a few exciting seconds. The way the US government decided to dispose of 20 tons of sodium was another thing altogether. The metal was surplus war production, probably used in incendiary bombs and in the production of aluminum for airplanes. No longer willing to stockpile it, the government tried to interest industry in the metal, but to no avail due to the hazard and expense of shipping the stuff. Sadly (and as was often the case in those days), they just decided to dump it.

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Be a Fire Bender With The Power of Magnets

More often than you think, scientific progress starts with a simple statement: “Huh, that’s funny…” That’s the sign that someone has noticed something peculiar, and that’s the raw fuel of science because it often takes the scientist down interesting rabbit holes that sometimes lead to insights into the way the world works.

[Ben Krasnow] ended up falling down one of those rabbit holes recently with his experiments with magnets and flames. It started with his look at the Zeeman effect, which is the observation that magnetic fields can influence the spectral lines of light emitted by certain sources. In a previous video, [Ben] showed that light from a sodium lamp could be dimmed by a powerful electromagnet. Some of his viewers took exception to his setup, which used an oxy-acetylene flame doped with sodium passing through the poles of the magnet; they thought the effect observed was a simple magnetohydrodynamic effect, and not the Zeeman effect he was supposed to be testing. That led to the experiments in the video below, which started with a candle flame being strongly deflected by the magnet. [Ben] methodically worked through the problem, eliminating variables by going so far as to blow soap bubbles of various gasses within the magnet’s poles to rule out the diamagnetism of oxygen as a cause of the phenomenon. He finally showed that even hot air by itself is deflected, using a simple light bulb and a FLIR camera. It’s good stuff, and well worth a watch.

Spoiler alert: [Ben] is still scratching his head about what’s going on, and we’re looking forward to his conclusions. This isn’t his first rabbit hole expedition, of course; his experiments with creating plasma with high-pressure water were fascinating, as were his DIY superconducting ceramics. Continue reading “Be a Fire Bender With The Power of Magnets”