Field of Science

Handheld chemistry

There was a time when chemists regularly reported the taste of newly synthesized compounds as well as other physical data (density, color, etc.). There was also a time when chemistry kits suggested doing chemistry in your hand, for fun. For a piece I wrote for Nature Chemistry (Homemade chemists) I found these instructions in a 1937 manual for a Chemcraft chemistry kit:

I'm a little cautious about using calcium oxide (CaO) as the reaction when it comes in contact with water is famously exothermic (you can cook an egg with it, see the video, and back in the day transporting CaO, or quicklime, by wooden ship, was hazardous duty). I wondered how exothermic was this reaction, and how much ammonia did it make relative to what you might encounter in a barn (the breakdown of urine yield ammonia) or your cat's litter box.

I'll admit to using Hess' law for fun. For those who have not enjoyed (endured?) an introductory chemistry class, Hess' law makes use of the fact that the energy content (heat of formation) of a molecule is a state function. Like altitude, it doesn't matter how you get to the top of the mountain from the valley, climbing straight up the side or meandering up a series of switchbacks, the change in altitude remains the same. So if I know where I am starting (the reactants, in this case calcium oxide (CaO) and ammonium chloride (NH4Cl)) and where I end (the products, calcium chloride (CaCl2, ammonia and water), I can figure out how much energy is used up (endothermic) or given off (exothermic).

The handheld reaction is 2 NH4Cl(s) + CaO(s) → 2 NH3(g) + H2O + CaCl2(s). I looked up the heats of formation in a handy table. To get a sense of magnitude, for 60 grams of CaO, which is about a tablespoon of material, the heat of formation is -635 kJ...or about the same amount of energy you can get from eating 3 Oreos. Overall, this reaction needs about 100 kJ to use up those 60 grams of CaO, in this case the energy comes from your warm hand. [Ed. note: While handheld chemical synthesis is an interesting way to "burn" calories, this is not a recommended weight loss technique!]

So your hand won't melt. Good to know. But if it were me, I'd do this in a test tube and warm it with my hand!

What the reaction does produce a surprising amount of ammonia. If you let the reaction go to completion (and since I don't know how fast the reaction proceeds, I can't tell you how long that will take), using about a 1.5 grams of ammonium chloride, and all the ammonia stays in a 1 cubic meter area around your hand, the concentration would be about 450 ppm. Since the CDC considers the IDLH (immediate danger to life and help) for ammonia to be 300 ppm, this would not be a great experiment to try in the tiny basement bathroom I used as a lab when I was a kid. Still, if you did this just until you could smell the ammonia, for most people that is about 50 ppm, a level considered reasonable for a brief (less than 5 minute) exposure. Levels inside a barn might be around 120 ppm.

Wash those hands.


  1. More food for thought for me as I teach my introductory chemistry. Thanks for helping my students enjoy more of it rather than just "enduring" as you state it. Trying to make it more interactive/fun.

  2. Nice way to prepare your morning breakfast:) Exothermic reaction indeed.


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