Big bang punctuates Chemistry Week

By Thomas Jordan
Contact reporter
November 1, 2003
Memphis Commercial Appeal


By Jim Weber
Christian Brothers University chemistry
professor Mike Condren ignites hydrogen-filled
balloons Friday at the Buckman Quad as part of a
chemistry demonstration during
National Chemistry Week.
Five red-and-blue balloons bobbing gently in the breeze at Christian Brothers University disintegrated in a startling explosion Friday.

A beaming Mike Condren, who touched off the hydrogen-filled balloons with a candle affixed to a long measuring stick, told a noon gathering in the quad: Advertisement "That was lots of noise and lots of light and lots of fun. "Happy National Chemistry Week."

Professor Condren and his students have been holding chemical demonstrations at noon each day this week at the university to celebrate chemistry week.

The bewhiskered Condren talks passionately about chemistry. "Every thing is chemistry. You're chemistry. What we eat, breathe, wear is all chemistry. It's all around us," he said in an interview. "And we like to make people aware of that fact and learn some of the fun things that can go on."

Some of the fun things that were demonstrated at Christian Brothers this week included:

  • A "large-scale" thermite reaction. During the demonstration flames shot out the top of a flowerpot and then liquid steel flowed out the bottom. "The heat reaches 5,000 degrees and melts the steel," Condren said. "It's fairly spectacular."
  • Applications of light-emitting diodes (LEDs), including their use in traffic lights and automobile tail lights. "A lot of traffic lights in Memphis are being converted to LEDs," Condren said. "They have less maintenance."
  • Chemistry involving money. Canadian and U.S. coins are separated without being touched (magnets), pennies are turned into "bass'' (heat) and an attempt to burn a $20 bill fails (water and alcohol).

    Junior David Tran, a chemistry major, said he enjoyed participating in the demonstrations. Echoing Condren, Tran said, "We try to show how chemistry relates to real life."

    Condren said he had discontinued a demonstration using nitrogen triiodide, which can be detonated by as little as the touch of a feather. "One year I was going to do this out in the quad here. "Nitrogen triiodide was on paper and the wind picked up that piece of paper and it bumped against something. "It detonated up alongside my head, and I've got some permanent hearing loss as a result."

    Christian Brothers is one of four universities in Tennessee rated by the American Chemical Society as having outstanding Student Affiliate Chapters. The other three are Union University, the University of Tennessee at Martin and Austin Peay State University. Only 29 college and university chapters were accorded the "outstanding" ranking this year. There are 25 to 30 declared chemistry majors at Christian Brothers.

    Demonstrations also are put on at public schools. Junior Manny Patel, a biology major, said, "We want to promote chemistry in the school system." Patel and others put on a demonstration at Memphis's Sea Isle Elementary last week. "It was a lot of fun, especially seeing the enthusiasm of the kids."

    Aside from showing that chemistry can be fun, Condren said, the demonstrations "get people from thinking about the hazards of chemistry and thinking about useful parts of chemistry."

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    Thomas Jordan: 529-5880