Brainiac Alkali Metals Explosions Faked

A depressing science week for me – nothing seems to be working correctly again. I told you the good times don’t last! So to go along with that, here is some depressing chemistry news.

I recently found – thanks to the chemistry subreddit - that the sweet alkali metal explosions video done by the British “Science” TV show Brainiac is entirely faked. Apparently when the alkali metal/water reactions weren’t as impressive as they had hoped, they spiced it up a little bit by just using plastic explosives and calling it an alkali metal and water reaction. Here’s a nice video that sums things up:


More info can be found here on the site. Here’s a quote from the show airer, Sky One:

A Sky spokeswoman said: “Brainiac is an entertainment show and the emphasis is on having fun. However, all of the experiments have proven theory behind them. We’re known for our love of big explosions, our fans love them and when we add a little something to create a bigger bang everyone is in on the joke.”

This is disturbing to me on a number of levels. I get that these guys are on TV and are in the business of entertainment, and sure, everyone loves a good explosion! However, if you are going to call yourself a science show then you are at least beholden to the idea that you are going to try and teach people science along with entertaining them. I feel this is worse than a big budget movie that shows impossible or wrong science. At least with that there’s no pretending that they are actually going to be scientifically correct.

Secondly – what a wasted opportunity! The Brainiac guys went into this with a pre-conceived notion that as they went down the periodic table, the alkali metals would produce bigger explosions in water. When that didn’t happen they could have done what actual scientists might have done: figure out why! Sure the theory is correct – but why doesn’t rubidium produce a huge explosion? Some think that it’s because the sodium is smaller than cesium and rubidium so in a few grams it can produce a larger energy explosion more quickly versus the larger molecules – but we don’t really know. This would be a great opportunity to show their audience what scientists do when the experiments don’t fit their previous hypothesis; i.e. revise the hypothesis and plan new experiments!

Instead they chose the cheap and easy way to do it. They decided that because their initial hypothesis didn’t fit their experimental results, they should change the experimental results to fit their incorrect hypothesis. Ugh. Unfortunately this also gave us insight into the fact that this sort of falsification goes on entirely too frequently in the scientific community.

Anyways – I hope no one ever discovers that Mythbusters are faking their results too otherwise I’ll have no semi-science shows to watch for explosions!

(Today) I am the Most Amazing Scientist Ever!

Now that is one mighty fine looking plot of data if I do say so myself! Honestly I was just excited and needed to share my pretty plot. 99% of the time you’re not getting pretty/useful data and you feel like with world’s biggest chump, but for that brief 1% everything is falling into place, the data fits, the signal is noise free, and you feel like the world’s most amazing scientist ever – and you just have to tell everyone all about it…

Damn son, that is some sweet looking data!

Science is fickle. You know the information you want is in your sample, somewhere. Your job is to coax it out of hiding so you can learn more about how the world works – or at least get something useful to publish. Certain days (ok, most days) the information is hiding, petulant, and reluctant to reveal itself no matter what you try. Maybe it would like a little more laser intensity? No? How about a little less? Still no? Ok, how about a different color… ? Nothing works and so you give up exasperated, hoping that maybe tomorrow will be different. After awhile of this you need some fresh ideas to try out, as there’s no sense in repeating what is clearly not working! That’s when it’s time to hit the published literature and see what helpful nuggets of information await.

I went through this over the last few weeks of lab work. I had been trying to observe a certain threshold laser intensity for which the sample started to saturate and different dynamics took hold. I was using transient absorption techniques for weeks, changing the power, changing the wavelength, to no avail. I knew that this *should* work as I had seen other people use it with success but for some reason it was not. Frustrated and feeling the need to smash my sample I decided it was time to try something else. I read through some papers and saw that another research group had used the emission of light from the sample to observe the threshold value that I was looking for. Of course! Emission is much more sensitive! I can probe at much lower laser intensities and still observe signal. After spending a few days setting up the experiment and figuring out how to correct the data for background emission and whatnot, voila!

Thanks for reading – because tomorrow I go back to being the world’s biggest chump…

I’m Back! With a bagful of links…

Hi! It’s been quiet around here lately as I’ve spent the last few weeks travelling around beautiful  Peru and have been (blissfully) away from the internet… but now I have returned! And I have a few science-y links for you:

  • This probably qualifies as the world’s worst chemistry set, but you can decide for  yourself.
  • Shady practices of drug companies that conflate medical research with PR advertising.
  • Top 50 Universities for the Physical Sciences. I don’t know what the rankings are based on but CU ranks #7 – booya!
  • Behind Science Magazine’s paywall, but a neat article that does an in depth apples-to-apples comparison of photovoltaic versus photosynthesis efficiencies. PV systems come out on top but applying photosynthesis methods and techniques could help to boost efficiencies of different systems.
  • Finally – It’s rare that a meteorite actually hits a human structure, but it does happen, as did recently to this couple in Poland.

Plastic Solar Cells Surge!

I love this chart – it’s a simple way to get a look at where different solar technologies stand and how far they’ve come from the past. For instance check out the very best of the best – the purple triangles get up to 43% efficiencies! That’s pretty sweet – except that this chart leaves out one other important piece of information: cost. For instance, those purple triangles are triple-junction single crystal solar cells which are north of $1000 per square centimeter. Yes you read that right, per square centimeter. So – even with those high efficiencies, these babies won’t be sitting on top of your roof anytime soon because they’d probably cost more than your house…

There’s more interesting things to be gleaned from this chart – read on to find out!

Historical efficiencies of different solar cell technologies. Click to view larger version. Image courtesy Larry Kazmerski (NREL)

Continue reading

Split That Water – Part II

This post was chosen as an Editor's Selection for

Update: This post was an Editor’s Selection at Research Blogging! Thanks guys!

In my previous post about water splitting, I talked about how to split water into hydrogen and how it can be useful. The drawback of course was that to make hydrogen from water, you need to input energy. If you’re just using electricity, and that electricity was produced from burning coal or natural gas, then the hydrogen you produce isn’t really any “greener”. However, if one could use sunlight directly to produce hydrogen, then you have a fuel that can be stored and used later, potentially mitigating the problems with solar energy. Namely – it’s not always sunny when you want to use electricity!

Recently Sun Catalytix - a company spun out of Dan Nocera’s lab at MIT – made headlines in a few places with their “artificial leaf” system. You can see it below – light shines on the device and bubbles (tiny bubbles) of hydrogen and oxygen evolve from the surface! No external power, no batteries!

Artificial leaf prototype. Bubbles, the Bubbles! (Source: CNET)

Read on to learn why splitting water using sunlight isn’t as easy as it seems, and how this new artifical leaf you’ve been hearing about is different.

Continue reading

Scientific Process Rage

I came across a student online who was wondering: What do scientists do? What is being a scientist like?

In pondering possible responses I started to think about what science and research is actually like, versus what it is portrayed as in popular culture. I actually find myself thinking about this topic quite a bit. I realize I am a scientist, but even when I am just trying to enjoy some TV shows or movies and I see a scene that involves a bit of science or technology needed to figure something out, my brain chimes in” “There’s no way that would work the first time, you’d have to go through all sorts of calibrations, find a standard sample… and then they would realize that they are using the wrong type of detector so they’d have to go build a new one… but first they’d have to figure out how to build a new one so that would take time… and in the end this whole research segment that takes about 30 seconds on the show should take about 10 weeks in real life”

Anyways, here’s my handy flowchart of the perception of science in popular culture versus actual science:

Note: Credit goes to Dan’s Awesome Rage Maker for the rage faces.

Science Jokes

Why do we love science jokes? Maybe because the puns are terrible… or maybe because you realize that (unless you work in a lab) you’re going to be the only one laughing, showing what a nerd you really are.

I came across this gem the other day:

A Higgs Boson walks into a church and the priest says “you can’t be in here”. The Higg Boson says “but without me how will you have mass?”

A-ahah. A terrible pun, because the Higgs Boson is postulated to be the particle that ‘gives’ other particles the property of having mass, which is also what the Catholic service is called… See, maybe you learned something today through that joke!

Here is a veritable metric-ton of pun-based unit jokes via my Dad. Enjoy:

1. Ratio of an igloo’s circumference to its diameter = Eskimo Pi
2. 2000 pounds of Chinese soup = Won ton
3. 1 millionth of a mouthwash = 1 microscope
4. Time between slipping on a peel and smacking the pavement = 1 bananosecond
5. Weight an evangelist carries with God = 1 billigram
6. Time it takes to sail 220 yards at 1 nautical mile per hour = Knotfurlong
7. 16.5 feet in the Twilight Zone = 1 Rod Serling
8. Half of a large intestine = 1 semicolon
9. 1,000,000 aches = 1 megahurtz
10. Basic unit of laryngitis = 1 hoarsepower
11. Shortest distance between two jokes = A straight line
12. 453.6 graham crackers = 1 pound cake
13. 1 million-million microphones = 1 megaphone
14. 2 million bicycles = 2 megacycles
15. 365.25 days = 1 unicycle
16. 2000 mockingbirds = 2 kilomockingbirds
17. 52 cards = 1 decacards
18. 1 kilogram of falling figs = 1 FigNewton
19. 1000 milliliters of wet socks = 1 literhosen
20. 1 millionth of a fish = 1 microfiche
21. 1 trillion pins = 1 terrapin
22. 10 rations = 1 decoration
23. 100 rations = 1 C-ration
24. 2 monograms = 1 diagram
25. 4 nickels = 2 paradigms
26. 2.4 statute miles of intravenous surgical tubing at Yale University Hospital = 1 IV League
27. 100 Senators = Not 1 decision

There are many more in this reddit thread. Here are some other good ones:

Einstein, Newton and Pascal decide to play hide and seek. Einstein is it, closes his eyes, counts to 10 then opens them.

Pascal is no where to be seen.

Newton is sitting right in front of Einstein, with a piece of chalk in his hand. He’s sitting in a box drawn on the ground, a meter to a side.

Einstein says “Newton, you’re terrible, I’ve found you!”

Newton says “No no, Einy. You’ve found one Newton per square meter. You’ve found Pascal!”

Hoho! Because 1 Pascal = 1 Newton/m2! See how much we are learning through jokes? Someday I hope to do a science lecture where everything I teach is based on a joke, I’m pretty sure it could be done.

Here’s a joke that only works written down:

There are 10 types of people in the world: those that understand binary and those that don’t

…because in binary you only have two digits to work with instead of ten, so one is 1 but two is 10, three is 11, four is 100… Now you know about binary!
Ok, that’s enough for now. Got any others?

Split That Water – Part I

You may have seen headlines popping up recently from news out of the American Chemical Society’s spring meeting in Anaheim, CA about a new “artificial leaf.” So how soon are you going to be planting these leaves and leaving your energy bills far behind? Don’t cancel your utilities just yet, but let’s take a look at what all the hubbub is about. In this two parter (!) I’ll first lay out the motivation behind trying to split water, what that has to do with energy, and then I’ll outline what makes this new development so interesting.

Split it Up – What is Water Splitting?

Here is the reaction that is the crux of this hole matter. All that we are trying to accomplish is to break apart the water molecule into the elements that make it up, in this case of course it’s just hydrogen gas and oxygen gas as seen here:

Energy + 2H2O –> 2H2 + O2

“Doesn’t seem so difficult” you say… and you’d technically be correct. I can tell you that the minimum amount of energy  needed to do this reaction is 1.23 V. On a relative scheme of things, it is not that much energy. For instance, you can split water in your own home with a simple 9-volt battery! Just hook up some wires to each terminal, stick in tap water, and watch hydrogen gas generate at the negative terminal and oxygen at the positive! (You can add some salt to the water to speed up the reaction if it’s taking too long). This process of using electricity to split molecules apart is called electrolysis, and here’s a nice video if you want to see done all fancy like:

(You’ll note there appears to be more hydrogen coming off than oxygen. That makes sense because there’s twice as much hydrogen in H2O than oxygen!)

So What?

Fantastic! We can make hydrogen bubbles from water… what’s the big deal?

The idea is that we can use hydrogen as a fuel to store energy when we don’t need it, and then use the fuel to produce energy when we do need it. The easiest way to do that is just to burn the hydrogen in a reaction that looks surprisingly familiar…

2H2 + O2 –> 2H2O + Energy

Hmm yes, the astute reader will note that this is just the reverse reaction to the one shown earlier. Instead of using up energy to split water apart, now we just combine hydrogen and oxygen to create water and release energy! Super! I’m now just going to put both of these reactions together to make a simple cycle that shows how we can store energy with one reaction, and use it with the other:

Diagram for storing and using energy with hydrogen

Neat, we provide energy (in the form of electricity) to convert low energy molecules (water in this case) to high energy molecules (hydrogen). When we burn hydrogen we convert it back into a low energy molecule (water) and get energy out out the system (either heat or electricity) which we can then use. I’ve generalized this energy storage mechanism, so let’s compare it to our current carbon-fuel based cycle:

Energy storage cycle for carbon based fuels.

You’ll say: “Heck, you just swapped hydrogen for oil, coal, and gasoline in the high energy molecules and added carbon dioxide to the low energy molecules!” and I’ll say “Darn right!”. Conceptually there’s no difference between hydrogen fuel based energy storage and carbon fuel based energy storage. We’re just using different molecules that happen to contain carbon as the high energy molecules, and this necessitates that we have carbon present in the form of carbon dioxide in the low energy molecules.

But here is the big difference. How much time does it take to go from CO2 to oil and coal? Well, I’m no geologist but I’m going to throw out a number on the order of 100 million years. How much time does it take to split water into hydrogen and oxygen? Well, a couple seconds to a few minutes as you just saw in that video, and that is a huge benefit to using hydrogen as an energy storage molecule. (One could reasonably argue that using the same carbon cycle above to use photosynthesis to produce simple sugars and ethanol only takes a few months – but I’d say that hydrogen production is still faster)

TIME OUT – Very Important Science Message!

If I had access to those 90′s era spinning siren animated gifs I would put them right here. This is critical. If there is one thing you take away from this post today it is this:

Hydrogen itself is not a source of energy

Remember that hydrogen is just a fuel, just a way to store the energy we got from somewhere else. There are no naturally occurring pockets of hydrogen gas that we can go mine. In order to make it with electricity we typically use fossil fuels. Many people will incorrectly report hydrogen as a source of carbon free renewable energy but this is incorrect. Hydrogen fuel is only as clean as the source of the energy that produced it.

So if you have a wind turbine that produces the electricity to make hydrogen, then yes the hydrogen can be considered clean. But if the hydrogen is created by burning coal, then the hydrogen is no more “clean” than the coal that produced it.


I kind of jumped the gun earlier but I wanted to make sure the previous point was crystal-clear. The real benefit of hydrogen is that if it can be married to a source of renewable energy – such as wind or solar. These renewable resources are great but are typically criticized for being variable, the typical catchphrase being “the sun doesn’t always shine and the wind doesn’t always blow”. BUT which hydrogen storage, the electricity could be used to create hydrogen when the sun is shinning and the wind is blowing – then the hydrogen could be burned (or used in a fuel cell) to produce the electricity on demand.

The artificial "leaf" technology using sunlight to split water and make hydrogen. Hot damn those are some sweet bubbles. Source: CNET

That’s Not All…

Of course, there’s a catch… making hydrogen isn’t as easy or as simple as I’ve made it seem. The 9V battery trick is not the solution to our energy problems. That would be just too easy. For one, sticking a 9V into water to make hydrogen is overkill and woefully inefficient. There are catalyst problems, storage problems, efficiency problems, all of which I will cover next time – along with this intriguing artificial leaf technology. Until then – think science!

Also – If you like this and find it useful – please share! It’s for SCIENCE!

Japan: Nuclear Crisis Info

After the terrible devastation that occurred in Japan, they are now dealing with a growing crisis at one of their nuclear facilities located near the earthquake-affected region. I’ve seen a fair amount of disinformation and confusion on the web and I though it might be prudent to answer some questions about what is going on. I’ll address the big questions first and then go into some  background details.

The Big Questions

I’ll address some large questions here:

  • Were the explosions at the reactors nuclear explosions? Absolutely not. The explosions were caused by pressurized hydrogen gas within the building igniting when coming into contact with oxygen and a heat source. The hydrogen was generated as the seawater or possibly superheated steam generated in the reactor came into contact with the hot zirconium alloy that encased the fuel rods. The heat and the zirconium can act as a catalyst to split water and produce hydrogen. In addition the fuel mix used in nuclear power plants is not as concentrated as the fuel used for a nuclear bomb, so it could never cause a nuclear explosion.
  • If there were a meltdown, would the radiation reach the USA? Again, absolutely not. There is a fake map circulating on the internet showing radiation reaching the west coast. I have no idea who would make such a fear-mongering graphic but it is totally false. You can read more about it on Snopes. Some people may remember what happened with the meltdown and explosion of the Chernobyl plant, but that reactor design was radically different. Even if a meltdown did occur in Japan the radiation would not reach the USA.
  • What is a meltdown? Did a meltdown occur in Japan? When the cooling systems fail in a nuclear reactor and the radioactive fuel rods are exposed to air they can continue to heat up to extreme temperatures, in excess of 3000° C. This causes the fuel rods and their metal casings to melt, releasing the dangerous radioactive products. A full meltdown occurs when all of the fuel is liquefied and burns through the bottom of the reactor housing. A partial meltdown occurs when only a small “hot spot” in the fuel rods melt. A full meltdown did not occur in Japan, but a partial meltdown may have occurred in two reactors when the pumps bringing seawater to the reactor failed. Information is hard to come by and we won’t know for sure until later.

General Timeline

Here’s a broad overview from what I have read, mostly summarized from this report:

  1. Earthquake – all nuclear reactors automatically and safely shut down.  “Shut down” means that the control rods are inserted into the fuel rods and the main nuclear reaction involving the splitting of Uranium is stopped. However the secondary decay of radioactive Iodine and Cesium still occurs, which produces heat. This means that cool water still needs to be pumped over the fuel rods.
  2. With the power plant shut down, it is not producing any power to run the water pumps that put fresh cold water onto the fuel rods. The pumps then started to run on diesel backup generators as planned.
  3. The diesel backup generators worked as planned until the Tsunami hit and wiped out all of them. As a backup to this occurring, the cooling pumps then switched over to battery power.
  4. Unfortunately the batteries only run the pumps for 8 hours. After this time was up there was no more power available to keep the pumps running.
  5. There are still a few emergency cooling options built into the design of the reactor, and it is assumed that these were implemented but we don’t know exactly what was done at this point. As time went on with heat building up, some of the water currently in the reaction chamber boiled into steam. Due to the heat and pressure, some of this steam was likely converted to oxygen and hydrogen gas.
  6. As more and more water turned into steam, the pressure inside the reaction chamber built up. Plant operators likely mitigated this pressure by venting some of the slightly radioactive steam out of the reaction chamber and into the outer containment building.
  7. The volatile hydrogen gas that built up inside the building, but outside of the reaction chamber, is likely what caused the explosions. While these destroyed the upper parts of the building, they left the reaction chamber intact.
  8. Power was restored as mobile generators were brought onsite. However as the water inside the system was being turned into steam and vented, there was not enough water left to properly cool the fuel rods. Thus seawater was used to add more water into the cooling system.
  9. The reactors that have had seawater pumped inside (#1 and #3 I believe) are now stable. Reactor number #2 is currently (as of this morning on 3/15/11) seeing higher radiation spikes and temperatures because the pumps bringing seawater inside failed. The situation is changing rapidly, but this seems to be where the most concern currently lies. If the reactor gets too hot, the fuel can melt, and if the reactor containment is cracked then larger amounts of radiation can be released.

That seems to be the current state of affairs, but again things are changing extremely rapidly and up-to-date information is hard to come by.

More Reading

The NYT graphic is especially informative. Source: NYTimes.

Quite a bit has been written about this topic over the last few days. There’s a good video (along with a crazy haired professor) over at Periodic Table of Videos, a great animated graphic from the New York Times about what happens during a meltdown and what happened in Japan, and finally an incredibly detailed explanation in laymens terms covering everything you’d ever want to know about nuclear reactor design and the timeline of what occurred recently. Also, here’s a good write-up of why the government distributes Iodine tablets in potentially affected areas. Let me know if you find any other good explanations – or any other questions as to what is going on. I’ll do my best to answer.

Money, Money, Money

In case you avoid all political news like the plague (a wise choice) there’s currently a budget fight going on between the administration’s proposed budget and the Republican controlled House of Representative’s budget cuts. How do these compare in terms of science and research funding? Specifically funding that affects my research? Let’s take a look. For each agency we will first look at the 2010 fiscal year estimate, the President’s proposed budget, and then the House Appropriation Committee’s proposed changes to the administration’s budget. The data comes from the AAAS analysis of research and development dollars for both budget proposals. Numbers are in millions of dollars.

Agency 2010 Estimate 2011 Proposed Budget 2011 House Budget
Amount % Change
from 2010
Amount % Change
from 2010
NSF 5,445 5,547 1.8% 4,955 -9%
Department of Energy 10,836 11,219 3.5% 9,460 -12.7%
Office of Science 4,528 4,642 2.5% 3,642 -19.6%
Energy Efficiency and
Renewable Energy
2,545 2,430 -4.5% 1,672 -34.4%
Department of Commerce 1,344 1,716 27.7% 1,379 2.6%
National Oceanic and
Atmospheric Administration
692 949 37.1% 782 13%
National Institutes of
Standards and Technology
588 705 19.9% 547 -7%
National Institutes of Health 30,155 31,394 4.1% 28,736 -8.5%
Total Nondefense R&D 62,683 65,875 5% 58,296 -6.7%

(Edit: added NIH funding to the table)

National Science Foundation

The good news here is that most science and research funding has a proposed increase in Obama’s proposed budgets. The National Science Foundation (NSF – which currently pays my tuition and stipend) would see a significant increase of 13% over 2010 levels to $7.8 billion. Included in this is:

-  $998 million for developing “Clean Energy Economy” technologies
-  $40 million for science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) training for K-12 and undergraduate teachers

This looks promising, especially the money set aside for K-12 educators. As Bill Nye was saying, this is a critical area where we can get students interested in STEM fields early and hopefully keep them studying in these disciplines.

The Republican House budget however would reduce the NSF’s budget by nearly $500 million resulting in a 9% decrease from 2010 levels.

The Department of Energy

Secretary Chu wants your dollars

The other important area of scientific funding that directly impacts my research comes from the Department of Energy (DoE), specifically their Office of Science which directs all of the DoE’s research dollars and includes the Basic Energy Sciences (BES) division. My current research falls under BES and we are actually in the process of writing a proposal to renew our grant from the DoE. BES is defined as:

The basic energy sciences (BES) program supports fundamental research in material sciences,chemistry, geosciences, and aspects of biosciences to understand,predict, and ultimately control matter and energy at the electronic, atomic, and molecular levels. BES core research awards permit individual scientists and small groups to pursue discovery driven research interests with broad energy relevance.

De-jargonified: BES projects explore fundamental principles and materials that can be used to create or understand new types of energy technologies. This means I don’t work directly on engineering new energy technologies, instead I try to gain a deeper understand of how and why they work the way that they do, and hopefully uncover more information that could lead to better devices or even entirely new types of energy devices.

While the budget proposal for the Office of Science gives a modest 2.5% increase, the Republican proposal would cut the Office of Science budget by nearly 20%, a huge decrease. Even worse, the Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy office (EERE) budget is reduced by over a third! EERE supports projects and programs that have the most direct impact on reducing energy use and promoting new energy technologies. This level of cuts would gut many of their programs and significantly reduce the support the government gives to clean energy technologies.

Jobs and Economy

Republicans typically talk about reducing the deficit in order to stimulate the economy. In my humble opinion, reducing research and development across the board, and more tellingly in clean energy research, results in the opposite effect. Less money supporting R&D means that research projects and groups will reduce their spending on capital equipment – research tools, devices etc. – and in general decrease their economic activity. It also means less employment options for persons trained in the engineering and sciences. Lack of funding may also prevent successful technologies and ideas from leaving the lab and entering the marketplace to begin with, reducing the number of potential start-up businesses that would arise from R&D funding.

If we really want to invest in a secure future, create jobs, and support a growing economy, we should invest more in research and development, not less.


How are the two budget’s going to be reconciled? It’ll happen somewhere in the Senate, and although there’s been a counter-budget proposal from the Senate Appropriations that addresses many of the differences listed above compromise appears unlikely