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Cold, Rain and Snow (but Mostly Snow and Ice) January 10, 2010

Posted by calvinus in Physical Chemistry.
Tags: , ,

This is the spring without end
This is the summer of malcontent
This is the winter of your mind

M. E. Smith, 1992

Actually Mark, this is the Winter of Malcontents.  In case you had failed to notice, the Angles are unhappy with the recent weather that has afflicted Albion’s Plain.

15 feet of snow in the east and it's colder than a well-diggers ass

A satellite image of the UK taken from NASA's TERRA satellite

TERRA-ble pun

A satellite image of NASA's TERRA satellite taken from the UK.

All this snow and ice is all a bit of a frightful inconvenience, quite frankly. I can’t get my car out of the drive for all of these roughians parking in the middle of the road, just abandoning their cars willy-nilly.

Get over it.  It’s cold, it’s slippy.  Dress accordingly. Act sensibly.

Councils are running out of salt to spread on the road and to a certain extent, I can understand this.  The weather has been a freakish, I mean how often in the last few years has Bromley (for example)  had to thole this much snow.  And so, in times of hardship, it is right that councils are rationing their supplies of salt.  I have heard the odd (and it is odd) criticism of councils that won’t go out and salt the roads and pavements when it gets too cold. “They should have been out…saying that the salt won’t work at -6°C is just an excuse.”  Err…actually…it is standard physical chemistry, my friend.

The water molecules in ice crystals are held together nice and tightly in a rigid structure that looks not unlike a honeycomb.  Voilà:

The structure of water moleculs in ice.

In a liquid, the water molecules are pinging around moving all over the place, they are not as tightly bound to each other as in an ice crystal.  As the temperature drops, the movement of the water molecules slows down and this is what allows ice to form this regular structure.  If you add something like salt into this mix, the atoms in salt disrupt the regular arrangement of water molecules above. When this disruption happens, the water molecules find it easier to move and break free, thus melting the ice that had formed.  If you want a nice animation of what happens when water freezes (at a molecular level) clicky here.

However, this only works until the temperature gets cold enough again to slow down the water molecules enough to allow them to be stuck back into the ice crystal.  What temperature this happens at depends on the nature of the salt (such as what size the atoms are, the atoms present, etc.) and how much you use. Sodium chloride and calcium chloride are commonly used salts for icy roads.  The Finns, rather typically given their climate, have been looking for alternative salts and thought about using potassium formate[1] (although a lot of ants might be needed to keep Finnish roads gritted with this!).

Standard table salt can be effective at temperatures as low as -21°C if you use enough of it.  Unfortunately this is at such high quantities of salt that I suspect we will all start complaining about how much our cars are rusting…

ResearchBlogging.org [1] Hellstén PP, Salminen JM, Jørgensen KS, & Nystén TH (2005). Use of potassium formate in road winter deicing can reduce groundwater deterioration. Environmental science & technology, 39 (13), 5095-100 PMID: 16053115


Recharge Your Batteries November 15, 2009

Posted by calvinus in Batteries, Energy, Physical Chemistry, Renewables.
Tags: , , ,

This post was chosen as an Editor's Selection for ResearchBlogging.org Every so often, you come across an article that looks really interesting.  Interesting in a good way .  Often you get the chance to review manuscripts that are “interesting”, but this is not one of those.

I was actually looking for something else and in the process of re-establishing some order to the chaos, this Chemical Communications article popped up from the pile.  Renewable electrochemical systems, i.e., rechargeable batteries, have long undergone development and if I compare my first rechargeable batteries with the lifetime of the battery in the laptop I am using at the moment, the difference is night and day.  Having said that, such efficiencies may partly bedown to better power management.  The underlying technology is not that radically different.  As Jean-Marie Tarascon commented at a meeting at the Royal Society in London at the start of this year, rechargeable battery research has advanced at an almost glacial pace.  As such, we are still a long way off using batteries for heavy-duty use such as in transport.  Sure, there are cars such as the Tesla of the Chevy Volt that are battery powered, but there are still issues with the weight and safety (and cost!) of many rechargeable systems.  For example, 1 litre of petrol still has a higher energy capacity that the Li ion batteries that your laptop or mobile invariably use.[1]

Energy Capacity

Copyright of the Royal Society of Chemistry

Nothing beats petrol, litre for litre, that we can easily use.

Except, you will notice from the above image that there is something that has a higher energy capacity.  Stuart Licht and colleagues at MIT have developed an electrochemical system that is based on air and borides, in their particular case, vanadium boride.[1]

As Licht himself says in his article, air batteries are nothing new – Zn/air batteries were first reported in 1932.[2]  Nonetheless, it is only comparatively recently that air batteries have started to receive serious attention.  The work of STAIR springs to mind.  It stands to reason that if half of your battery “runs” on air, then your cost and weight drop – you do not have to carry around as much of the chemicals you might originally have required.

Licht’s work shows substantial promise.  He has developed a system with a higher capacity than petrol based on vanadium boride despite the fact that “basic physical chemical properties of VB2 are scarce.”  There is much scope for improvement on something which is already an excellent start.

Can we improve the vanadium boride?

Can we find a low-temperature/”easy” way of preparing vanadium boride?

Are there better materials?

We shall see.

ResearchBlogging.org [1] Licht, S., Wu, H., Yu, X., & Wang, Y. (2008). Renewable highest capacity VB2/air energy storage Chemical Communications (28) DOI: 10.1039/b807929c

[2] Kinoshita, K, Electrochemical Oxygen Technology, Wiley-Verlag VCH, Weinheim, Germany, 1992, pp. 259-260.