Field of Science

Building Skills

Grasping the abstract models chemists use to understand what holds a molecule together — its bonding —  is one of the major goals of the general chemistry course I am teaching this semester.   Understanding the bonding in a molecule is the key to predicting and understanding its structure and reactivity.  The models chemists use to describe bonding in molecules range from what can be done on the back on an envelope, such as  Lewis dot structures or VSEPR structures, and those that require hefty amounts of computer time to set up and solve (ab initio MO theory).  The text we are using includes many full color diagrams of bonds, but student still struggle with how these two dimensional representations "work" in three dimensions.

Ad hoc models — mock ups of molecules built by hand from mundane materials such as cardboard and wire — have a venerable history in chemistry.  Watson and Crick used cutouts of the bases to figure out how they paired along the helix; Smalley built a paper model of pentagons and hexagons to see how C60 could be constructed.

So last week, I brought paper, tape and some simple molecular models (tubes and small metal centers which I buy by the bag to hand out to students) to class and asked students to build a valence bond model for acetaldehyde (implicated in hangovers - acetaldehyde, not valence bond theory, though the latter certainly can make students queasy).  Students cut, paste, built and discussed, producing what you see in the slideshow.

With thanks to Danqui Luo, Tess McCabe, Kai Wang, Ben Kaufmann and all the students of Chem 103 who built and photographed the models.

Hurricane Chemistry: Renovating Butter

Hurricane Sandy left us without power for several days and while a basement chest freezer remained solidly frozen, thermal equilbrium was unfortunately reached by our refrigerator and kitchen, at roughly 55oF.  Saturday morning found us rooting through the refrigerator, deciding what had to be chucked (milk) and what didn't (ketchup).  Butter?  In this cool weather, it could stay, it would be unlikely to have turned rancid.

But coincidently, while breezing through a depression era Chemcraft chemistry set instruction book, I encountered directions for "renovating" rancid butter.  Around the same time that margarine made its debut, so did process butter, butter that had been treated to remove the objectionable materials.  As near as I can tell, it's an extraction process, presumably the rancid materials (such as butyric acid) dissolve in the cream and the remaining materials can be reworked into a solid mass.

Laws remain on the books in many places forbidding the sale of process butter without making clear to the consumer what is being purchased.  In the early part of the 20th century this was widespread enough for the US Department of Agriculture to print a booklet which "enable[s] any housekeeper, with only the usual facilities of the kitchen, to distinguish in the great majority of cases between genuine butter, renovated butter, and oleomargarine."

Next time the power goes out, I'll know how to "renovate" my butter, as long as I don't intend to sell it!