Lighting Up With Chemistry, 1823-Style

With our mass-produced butane lighters and matches made in the billions, fire is never more than a flick of the finger away these days. But starting a fire 200 years ago? That’s a different story.

One method we’d never heard of was Döbereiner’s lamp, an 1823 invention by German chemist Johann Wolfgang Döbereiner. At first glance, the device seems a little sketchy, what with a tank of sulfuric acid and a piece of zinc to create a stream of hydrogen gas ignited by a platinum catalyst. But as [Marb’s Lab] shows with the recreation in the video below, while it’s not exactly as pocket-friendly as a Zippo, the device actually has some inherent safety features.

[Marb]’s version is built mainly from laboratory glassware, with a beaker of dilute sulfuric acid — “Add acid to water, like you ought-er!” — bathing a chunk of zinc on a fixed support. An inverted glass funnel acts as a gas collector, which feeds the hydrogen gas to a nozzle through a pinch valve. The hydrogen gas never mixes with oxygen — that would be bad — and the production of gas stops once the gas displaces the sulfuric acid below the level of the zinc pellet. It’s a clever self-limiting feature that probably contributed to the commercial success of the invention back in the day.

To produce a flame, Döbereiner originally used a platinum sponge, which catalyzed the reaction between hydrogen and oxygen in the air; the heat produced by the reaction was enough to ignite the mixture and produce an open flame. [Marb] couldn’t come up with enough of the precious metal, so instead harvested the catalyst from a lighter fluid-fueled hand warmer. The catalyst wasn’t quite enough to generate an open flame, but it glowed pretty brightly, and would be more than enough to start a fire.

Hats off to [Marb] for the great lesson is chemical ingenuity and history. We’ve seen similar old-school catalytic lighters before, too.

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Wipe On, Wipe Off: Make Your Own Rain Repellent

Once upon a time, we drove an old six-volt VW Beetle. One sad day, the wiper motor went out, and as this happened before the Internet heyday, there were no readily-available parts around that we were aware of. After briefly considering rubbing a potato on the windshield as prescribed by the old wives’ tale, we were quite grateful for the invention of Rain-X — a water-repelling chemical treatment for car windshields.

Boy would we have loved to know how to make it ourselves from readily-available chemicals. As you’ll see in the video below, it doesn’t take much more than dimethicone, sulfuric acid, and a cocktail of alcohols. [Terry] starts with dimethicone, which he activates with a healthy dose of concentrated sulfuric acid, done under the safety of an exhaust hood. After about 20 minutes on the stir mix-a-lot plate, [Terry] added ethanol and isopropyl alcohols. Finally, it was off to the garage with the mixture in a spray bottle.

After meticulously cleaning the windshield, [Terry] applied the solution in small areas and rubbed it in with a towel to create a thin bond between it and the glass. This creates a perfectly normal haze, which can be removed after a bit with a clean towel.

If you just love listening to your windshield wipers, at least make them move to a beat.

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Mining And Refining: Sulfur

When you think of the periodic table, some elements just have a vibe to them that’s completely unscientific, but nonetheless undeniable. Precious metals like gold and silver are obvious examples, associated as they always have been with the wealth of kings. Copper and iron are sturdy working-class metals, each worthy of having entire ages of human industry named after them, with silicon now forming the backbone of our current Information Age. Carbon builds up the chemistry of life itself and fuels almost all human endeavors, and none of us would get very far without oxygen.

But what about sulfur? Nobody seems to think much about poor sulfur, and when they do it tends to be derogatory. Sulfur puts the stink in rotten eggs, threatens us when it spews from the mouths of volcanoes, and can become a deadly threat when used to make gunpowder. Sulfur seems like something more associated with the noxious processes and bleak factories of the early Industrial Revolution, not a component of our modern, high-technology world.

And yet despite its malodorous and low-tech reputation, there are actually few industrial processes that don’t depend on massive amounts of sulfur in some way. Sulfur is a critical ingredient in processes that form the foundation of almost all industry, so its production is usually a matter of national and economic security, which is odd considering that nearly all the sulfur we use is recovered from the waste of other industrial processes.

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Recovering Metal From Waste

Refining precious metals is not as simple as polishing rocks that have been dug out of the ground. Often, complex chemical processes are needed to process the materials properly or in high quantities, but these processes leave behind considerable waste. Often, there are valuable metals left over in these wastes, and [NerdRage] has gathered his chemistry equipment to demonstrate how it’s possible to recover these metals.

The process involved looks to recover copper and nitric acid from copper nitrate, a common waste byproduct of processing metal. While a process called thermal decomposition exists to accomplish this, it’s not particularly efficient, so this alternative looks to improve the yields you could otherwise expect. The first step is to react the copper nitrate with sulfuric acid, which results in nitric acid and copper sulfate. From there, the copper sulfate is placed in an electrolysis cell using a platinum cathode and copper anodes to pass current through it. After the process is complete, all of the copper will have deposited itself on the copper electrodes.

The other interesting thing about this process, besides the amount of copper that is recoverable, is that the sulfuric acid and the nitric acid are recoverable, and able to be used again in other processes. The process is much more efficient than thermal decomposition and also doesn’t involve any toxic gasses either. Of course, if collecting valuable metals from waste is up your alley, you can also take a look at recovering some gold as well.

Thanks to [Keith] for the tip!

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Anodize Aluminum Easily

We’ve all seen brightly-colored pieces of aluminum and can identify them as anodized. But what does that mean, exactly? A recent video from [Ariel Yahni] starring [Wawa] — a four-legged assistant — shows how to create pieces like this yourself. You can see [Wawa’s] new dog tag, below.

[Ariel] found a lot of how to information on using sulphuric acid, but that’s dangerous stuff. One web page we covered years ago, though, discussed a safer chemistry. The process requires lye and a common pool chemical used to decrease pH. Sodium hydroxide isn’t super safe, but it is much less problem to buy, store, and use than battery acid.

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Anyone Need A Little Fuming Nitric Acid?

If there’s a chemical with a cooler name than “fuming nitric acid,” we can’t think of it. Nearly pure nitric acid is useful stuff, especially if you’re in the business of making rocket fuels and explosives. But the low-end nitric acid commonly available tops out at about 68% pure, so if you want the good stuff, you’ll have to synthesize fuming nitric acid yourself. (And by “good stuff”, we mean be very careful with the resulting product.)

Fuming nitric acid comes in two colors – red fuming nitric acid (RFNA), which is about 90% pure and has some dissolved nitrogen oxides, giving it its reddish-brown color. White fuming nitric acid (WFNA) is the good stuff — more than 99% pure. Either one is rough stuff to work with — you don’t want to wear latex or nitrile gloves while using it. It’s not clear what [BarsMonster] needs the WFNA for, although he does mention etching some ICs. The synthesis is pretty straightforward, if a bit dangerous. An excess of sulfuric acid is added to potassium nitrate, and more or less pure nitric acid is distilled away from the resulting potassium sulfate. Careful temperature control is important, and [BarsMonster] seems to have gotten a good yield despite running out of ice.

We don’t feature too many straight chemistry hacks around here, but this one seemed gnarly enough to be interesting. We did have a Hackaday Prize entry a while back on improvements to the Haber process for producing ammonia, which curiously is the feedstock for commercial nitric acid production processes.

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Boiling Acid Used To See Chip Die

When a project starts off by heating acid to its boiling point we say no thanks. But then again we’re more for the projects that use ones and zeros or a hot soldering iron. If you’re comfortable with the chemistry like [Michail] this might be right up your alley. He used boiling acid to expose and photograph the die from several integrated circuits.

The title of our feature is a play on words. In this case, die refers to the silicone on which the IC has been etched. To protect it the hardware manufacturer first attaches the metal pins to the die, then encapsulates it in plastic. [Michail] removes that plastic case by heating sulfuric acid to about 300 degrees Celsius (that’s 572 Fahrenheit) then submerges the chips in the acid inside of a sealed container for about forty minutes. Some of the larger packages require multiple trips through the acid bath. After this he takes detailed pictures of the die and uses post processing to color enhance them.

This isn’t the only way to get to the guts of a chip. We’ve seen nitric acid and even tree sap (in the form of bow rosin) do the trick.