Archive for the ‘Fun’ Category

A Defense Party to Remember

Monday, October 1st, 2012

A beloved member of our group defended her thesis today and will be departing for her postdoc in a week. She gave a fantastic talk and will be missed dearly. This was the centerpiece of her defense party:

Yep, that’s a moon bounce, set up right next to the Beckman Institute at Caltech. Pretty epic. I can’t think of any similarly notable defense parties I’ve attended, aside from the time we purchased $200+ of food at McDonald’s and built a pyramid of burgers and apple pies. It was heaven.

Congrats, GK!

The Copper-to-Silver-to-Gold Alchemy Demo

Friday, September 21st, 2012

As part of the outreach effort for our NSF Solar Fuels center at Caltech, we run a program that enables high-school students to conduct research using a Caltech-built kit to screen the activity of metal oxides in the photoelectrolysis of water (into molecular hydrogen and oxygen). During the summer, we host a select group of students to work on projects aimed at improving the kit and method. I briefly talked about my participation in the program before, and you can read more about it here.

On the last day of work this summer, aside from cleaning up the lab, we let the students select a few experiments from Bassam Shakhashiri’s fabulous Chemical Demonstrations series. The students I helped supervise selected the “copper-to-silver-to-gold” demonstration, in which a copper penny is plated with zinc (to appear silver) and then heated to yield a top layer of brass (which appears gold). The London Olympics could not have been better timed:

To my relief, the demonstration was remarkably cheap and easy to set up. All you have to do is grab a stock solution of NaOH, a bottle of zinc granules, and some pennies coined prior to 1983. (U.S. pennies dated before 1983 are composed primarily of copper, whereas more recent coins are copper-plated zinc.)

When you drop a penny into a beaker of zinc granules immersed in near-boiling 0.5 M NaOH, zinc will plate onto the copper such that the coin appears silver within two or three minutes. When the penny is washed and heated on a hot plate set to ~200-300 °C, the zinc and copper blend to form a brass alloy that is golden in color. This transformation happens quickly, within 20 seconds or so.

The zinc suspension can be used indefinitely; I think we plated around 15 pennies. The students had an assembly line going:

So, that’s it. The copper-to-silver-to-gold alchemy demo gets my full endorsement. It is cheap, easy, and a lot of fun. The students got to learn a little electrochemistry and materials chemistry, plus they all wound up with a cute conversation piece as a souvenir.

Long Weekend, Big Plans

Friday, August 31st, 2012

My plans for Labor Day weekend are all set thanks to a nice discovery during a group clean-up yesterday:

Plenty of gloves? Check. Multiple boxes of FIXANAL? Check.

Who would name a brand of buffer concentrates “FIX ANAL” and shape the container like a…well…errrr?

Germans. That’s who. I guess you can just add this to the list of cross-cultural marketing blunders, though I am not certain that there wasn’t someone who did this on purpose. Who else sells buffer mix in an odd tube like that?

Chemistry Weddings (and Funerals?)

Wednesday, July 11th, 2012

It is summertime, which means we are smack dab in the middle of wedding season.

A couple of weeks ago, one of the grad students in our lab got married and did a nice job of incorporating some chemistry into the mix. Each table was named after one of the couple’s favorite molecules, and it was no coincidence that the delegation from our lab was seated at the alcohol dehydrogenase table:

A couple of years ago, another grad student from our lab and his wife had element themed tables (with test tubes as seat markers) at their reception:

Pretty cool — and I love the glassware. Congrats to M & A and A & C for getting hitched and representin’ chemistry at the same time. (Also, many thanks to the fabulous GK for the photos.)

These chemical wedding ideas are awesome, but I generally spend more time planning my dream funeral. Since chemistry is a big part of my life, I’d like to make sure it is also a part of the celebration of my death. In ancient Egypt, people were buried with items thought necessary or useful in the afterlife. These included everyday items like food, utensils, and furniture. In this vein, I would like to be buried with a few pieces of lab equipment when I kick the bucket.

First off, I’ll need some PPE. I’ll stick with with the traditional dress pants, shirt, and tie (yellow, please), but I’d like a Nomex lab coat in lieu of a sports jacket. Next, I want a pristine 7″ NMR tube with a purple cap placed in my top left pocket. In one of my trouser pockets, I’d like a set of 24/40-to-vial adapters. Nothing beats ending a synthesis by rotavapping your product directly in its final container.

A couple of weeks ago, I asked the blog’s Facebook fans and Twitter followers what they’d like to be buried with. Here are some of the responses:

Roger — A 1 GHz NMR (ok, Mr. Greedy)
Bethany — An NMR tube cleaner (I’ve never had one)
Adan — A Schlenk tube (nice)
Michael — A J-Young NMR tube (very nice)
Benny — A Dean-Stark apparatus
Jess and William — Soxhlet extractor (fun to watch for eternity)
Cari — A fritted funnel with vacuum adapter (man, there is nothing like having a clean one)
Wendy — A fleaker (saucy!)
Derek — Kipp’s apparatus (old school ballin’)
Ann — A Sharpie
Neil — Mortar & pestle, or possibly, a blowtorch (hardcore)
Barney — One of those 10 mL green pipette pumps
Rory — A swivel frit
Peter — Suba seal septum (red or white?)
Freda — A “cute” bubbler
Peter T. — A column…with “a blocked sinter and dodgy tap”
Lab Monkey — “The sole red Keck clip from our dept labs. The thought that someone will finally have to order more warms my cockles”

The most incisive comment made during this exercise came from Shawn, who noted “this seems like a formula to inspire grave robbing by grad students from underfunded labs.”

Maybe, but if you seal me in my coffin with a few jugs of expired THF, I don’t think many people will want to come a knockin’ with shovels.

A Terrible Week for Chemistry

Saturday, April 14th, 2012