Tables That Turn Heads in Chemistry & Industry

August 2, 2010 - London, UK

By Cath O'Driscoll

Martyn Poliakoff and Pete Licence aren’t much used to dealing with fan mail. But the Nottingham University chemists and green solvent experts are rapidly having to readjust to their new found fame as the stars of the now widely acclaimed Periodic Table of Videos (PTOV, http://www.periodicvideos.com). ‘I am six years old. I really like your videos. I would like to be a chemist in Nottingham like you when I grow up,’ one enthusiastic youngster recently emailed Poliakoff after seeing him in action by clicking on the element links on the site and watching him enthuse about each one’s properties – backed up by footage of laboratory colleagues carrying out often explosive and highly entertaining experiments...

While most of the elements occur naturally as ‘dreary grey powders’, RGB possesses an arc furnace that allows the team to melt samples of even the highest melting point element tungsten at 3400oC and recast them in more interesting and lustrous solid metal forms. Another prized bit of kit is a three-phase donkey saw for rugged cutting.

Creating these real ‘Element Collections’ is primarily an exercise in health and safety, Whitby says, adding that had he known all the problems at the outset he would never have embarked on the project. About half of the elements in the table carry ‘some degree of risk’ and the most hazardous are typically stored under argon or sealed in double and even triple ampoules. And while it is not possible to include the transuranic elements in the collections because of their short half lives, several radioactive ones – including thorium and uranium, safely packaged – are included.

One of the rarest and most valuable elements in the table, meanwhile, is rhodium, Whitby notes, adding that when he first bought it to create some of the original tables the element cost $500/troy ounce (31.1g) – a price that subsequently shot up to $10, 000/ounce!

Alongside some of its larger installations, RGB also produces smaller collections and individual element blocks, mainly sold to schools, libraries and universities. To date, the firm has sold around 250 element collections, including a display recently installed at the HQ of Dow Chemical in Midland, Michigan, US. Another recent venture, meanwhile, is a 20 foot tall multimedia extravaganza completed in 2008 for the Chemical Heritage Foundation in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, US. While this spectacular video column does not contain actual elements, it does feature a touchsensitive computational display of light, pictures and sound – conjuring up a cacophony of animated chemical reactions that creates an experience that is hard to forget....

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