Remember how much fun your high school chemistry class was? Neither do we. But that may be because there weren’t enough explosions. Well, nowadays, the internet can fix that problem in a jiffy — or rather, a GIF.
Capturing extreme chemical reactions in animated gifs is the best way to experience the magic of chemistry outside of the lab, and there’s no shortage of them floating around. From fiery moments of fusion to foaming towers of decay, these reactions run the gamut from eye-opening to jaw-dropping.
There tends to be one little problem though. It’s hard to explain in a gif alone what the heck is going on in these reactions. So, for your educational pleasure, we’ve collected a few of our favourites and explained how the reactions work. Do not not try these at home. Not unless you film it and post the video online, that is.
This one’s a classic. Nicknamed “elephant toothpaste” for the cylinder of foam it produces, this reaction shows the rapid decomposition of hydrogen peroxide. The reaction is produced by mixing concentrated hydrogen peroxide (mixed with a little bit of dish soap) and potassium iodide. When the potassium iodide is added to the hydrogen peroxide solution, it acts as a catalyst, rapidly breaking down the hydrogen peroxide into oxygen and water. The oxygen escapes from the beaker, quickly pushing out large amounts of foam from the dish soap. It looks like elephant-sized toothpaste.
You might’ve seen this type of reaction at work in fireworks. It involves exposing the mercury(II) thiocyanate compound to a strong heat source like, well, fire. The mercury(II) thiocyanate ignites, producing a blue flame. Combustion causes the compound to decompose and produce a huge, snake-shaped mass of brown solid matter — carbon nitride — that’s insoluble in water. The resultant mercury(II) sulphide then reacts with the oxygen in the air to produce poisonous mercury vapours. Use a hood if you’re planning to try this one out yourself.
You’ve probably caused this reaction to happen without even knowing it. Sodium polyacrylate (a.k.a. waterlock) is an amazing substance and it does amazing things when it comes into contact with liquid. The compound is capable of absorbing 200 to 300 times its mass in water, which makes it super useful for commercial purposes, such as making thickening agents or diapers. But just watching the absorption happen in real time is stunning.
Copper + Nitric Acid
This is real mad scientist stuff. We’ve all seen copper oxidise over time — the Statue of Liberty is a perfect example — but have you seen what happens when you speed up the process? To do so, you can just drop a piece of copper into concentrated nitric acid. The copper immediately oxidises, creating a green solution, as the nitric acid becomes nitrogen dioxide, a poisonous brown gas. Pour a bit of water in there and the nitrogen dioxide becomes nitrogen oxide, turning the solution a bright blue. Science!
Flaming Gummy Bear
Potassium chlorate and sugar do not get along. So when you drop a gummy bear — which is basically made of pure sugar — into a potassium chlorate solution, the results are somewhat violent. First, the potassium chlorate breaks down to produce potassium chloride and a bunch of oxygen. The heat from that reaction then causes the oxygen to ignite, burning the gummy bear to a crisp… and causing it to dance a bit in the process.
OK, this one is dangerous. Chlorine bombs are a real thing, so you probably want to avoid doing this in your garage (or anywhere). But if you were to do the experiment, just mix calcium hydrochlorite, a compound used to keep pools clean, with some soda. The small amount of phosphoric acid in the Coke sets off a chemical reaction with the calcium hydrochloride, producing poisonous chlorine gas and a spectacular little explosion.
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