My First Blog Post

The Biden crime bill and Crack

— Oscar Wilde.

In the late 1980’s, cities in this country were confronted with a new drug fad involving cocaine; namely, “freebasing”. Traditionally, cocaine is abused by “snorting”; the user inhales the powder up the nose. This can be somewhat uncomfortable, In that the individual crystals are rather sharp, and repeated use can damage the septum, the membrane between the nostrils.

I hate to do this, but we need to consider some chemistry here. Cocaine, along with most other drugs, fall into a category called “nitrogeneous bases”, substances that contain nitrogen in the molecule. These are frequently messy, smelly liquids (think of ammonia). As such their physical properties render them unfit for ingestion. What is generally done about this is to convert them chemically to acid salts, usually the hydrochloride (HCl). This dramatically alters them to a more suitable form for use in the body. For instance, the conversion makes them dissolve better I n water, which makes up most of us. Another property which changes is the melting point; it is much lower in the freebase form. One can smoke the stuff, which gives a quicker high, and avoids damage to the nose. Win-Win!

In a pervious life, I worked in DEA forensic labs. I was once called upon to do a dog-and-pony show for agency higher-ups. I took a gram of cocaine HCl , added an ounce or so of water and a teaspoonful of baking soda, stirred briefly, and a white solid dropped to the bottom of the beaker. I poured out the water, and voila! Crack cocaine!!

In so doing, however, I increased the penalty for dealing the mere gram of coke (as the HCl salt) to what it would have been for a kilo. Talk about value added!

Evidentally, Joe Biden, then a senator, had some responsibility for drastically increasing penalties for trafficking on crack, vis a vis cocaine as the HCl salt. This had the unintended consequence of filing jails with low level druggies, mostlyminorities, with no effect to speak of on cocaine trafficking by the organized crime cartels, who rarely fooled with crack.

The crack epidemic was a crisis in many large cities at the time. Whether this did any good to deal with the problem is well above my pay grade. The law was modified in 2010 to reduce the sentencing disparity from 1,000 to 18. It is probably still too great, but a baby step in the right direction, maybe.

Spring Cleaning

As usual, the calendar has passed me by. Most of us regard the end of spring as being Memorial Day, which has happened for this year. However, if you would indulge me, I’d like to propose some spring cleaning. None of these are ever going to happen, but it’s fun to picture what our republic (assume we can keep it) might be like if we could get at least some of this done.

Item Number 1: Abolish the Electoral College. This relic probably was created by the Founders having the masses-are-asses mind set. We would select well qualified folks to make this crucial choice. Well qualified, in those days meant property owning White males. It took the better part of a century to grant suffrage to females, and at least one of the political parties is actively engaged in trying to limit suffrage as far as possible. After all, shouldn’t the voters decide an election? Well, they did, until they didn’t. After all, twice in this young century the electoral choice was the candidate who won fewer popular votes, both Republicans (how ’bout that!). Is this a democracy, or what.

Item number 2: Repeal the Second Amendment. What does it mean, anyway? The Amendment mentions a “well regulated militia”. Well, we have the police, National Guard, Army and Marine Corps, or the Navy and Air Force – aren’t they “well regulated” enough? I can see the point of rural folk who need firearms to protect livestock from predators, but have we had wild Indian attacks lately?? No less an authority than Warren Burger, a retired Chief Justice opined in a televised interview that the Amendment is, at best, archaic, and should be repealed. State of the art weaponry in the 18th Century consisted of flintlock rifles; bullets weren’t even invented until the 19th. Can’t imagine AR-15’s in the calculus of that time.

Item number 3: Get rid of the U.S. Senate, or at least, eliminate the filibuster. In our zeal to give the minority a voice, we have all but strangled the majority. How democratic is it when Wyoming (population 0.76M) is equal to California (39M) or Texas (30M) in terms of representation. The Senate’s function would hardly be missed; it does nothing anyway.

Item Number 4: Sweep out NRA’s top management, starting with Wayne La Pierre. The organization is corrupt, and virtually out of business in New York, anyway. It used to stress training in firearm safety, which has been deemphasized in recent years. NRA seems to exist largely to support the munitions industry by lobbying against any and all attempts to minimize our epidemic of gun violence.

Perhaps if we did away with the 2nd Amendment we could look honestly at our nation’s preoccupation with guns. We could start with the fact that there are more guns than people in our republic. Do all of us need protection from Indians (pardon me: Native Americans)? Somehow, our fellow democracies get by with about 5% of our gun ownership per capita. Their crime rates are a small fraction of ours. I don’t think British, Canadian or Japanese school children need to practice live shooter drills as do increasing numbers of American kids.

If we must have a Senate, can’t we at least get rid of the filibuster? Or, how about (if we must have one) making it like it used to be, where one had to hold the floor until exhaustion set in, or death, or whatever. We make it too easy.

Perhaps we could solve more critical, existential problems if we went back to an earlier principle of democracy: let the majority rule, just like you were taught in grammar school. Elections do have consequences.

Legalized Pot: Are We Ready for this?

About a year ago, I posted some thoughts on aspects ol marihuana legalization. At this point, it would seem that the cat is out of the bag, so to speak – about 36 states have taken some steps to decriminalize the stuff. As I’ve said in other posts, I am wholeheartedly in favor of legalization for medical uses, but I wish we had some idea of what we’re dealing with.

There is, of course, the legal definition, which is stated in the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, which takes a full paragraph in Schedule I, reserved for the most heinous, dangerous stuff out there, having no accepted medical use. (By contrast, fentanyl, which has killed thousands of our fellow citizens, resides tn Schedule II of the Act; it does have legitimate medical uses). The definition specifies rhe plant Cannabis sativa; which is home to several dozen chemicals having diverse (and pretty much unknown) effects on the human body. Of this plethora of substances two are singled out in most discussions – cannabidiol (CBD) and delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). The former appears to be useful in treating seizures without psychoactivity (doesn’t make one high). THC does.

CBD, anecdotaly, has significant promise as, among other conditions, an anti-seizure med. It also shows promise as a pain reliever. CBD can be purchased without a prescription at your local Food Lion (and probably other supers). It has never been approved by FDA or any other US government agency (it is, after all, derived from an illegal substance under existing Federal law).

THC, on the other hand, is stuff to make you high, period. Well, then, how do you use it? The most common practice is to smoke it, although it can be baked into brownies or other recreational food. OK, lets consider cigarettes. How strong a dose do you get in a cigarette? Who knows. Does anybody? What is true is the THC potency is estimated to be at least 10 times what it was 30 years ago, What effect does this stronger pot have on the developing adolescent brain? I suppose we could set a smoking age, maybe 21. Good luck with that!

Tobacco cigarettes are a well-known hazard. Limited studies have shown that marihuana cigarettes may be even more hazardous, although marihuana smokers are probably not going to smoke 2 or 3 packs per day, every day.

We, as a society, would benefit greatly from research into effects, safety, quality assurance, dosage and other aspects of marihuana use. Since pot has been around since biblical times, it would be hard to create a pathway toward patent protection (and, as a result, encourage Big Pharma to do what it does best, namely, conduct research for fun and profit. Oh well, why bother, anyway? We’re just using it for R and R. No, I don’t want to return us to reefer madness, but we do need to take this a bit more seriously to safeguard our young people (at least those that survive school massacres…..).

An Endangered Species

We don’t often think of male humans as being in peril. My generation was brought up to think of guys as the “stronger” sex, probably because men were the ones fighting WWII. (Nowadays, there are more sexes which tends to further confuse the issue). What “they” never adequately explained was that the “weaker” sex outlived us, decade after decade. Moreover, women can withstand pain and privation better then men (can you imagine men having babies? God knew better, as usual).

I never gave this much attention,until I retired from Federal service and applied for a teaching gig. I was told that girls needed to be encouraged to speak out in science courses. This was Catholic high school, circa 1994. The assistant principal in charge of academics, however, had other ideas. Sister Marie laReine told me in no uncertain terms that if student applicants were judged solely on grade school achievement, rather than trying to balance the genders. “this would be an all-girls school”.

By and large, I usually found female students to be more successful than guys, although the “maturity gap” had narrowed somewhat by the time the kids had attained high school age. Much the same the could be observed in my community college chem courses. At that time (early 21st century), at least the proportion of the sexes were abuut equal.

Today, however, a large portion of the male gender seems to have dropped out. Consider one symptom – higher education:

Overall community college enrollment: 57% female

Bachelors Degrees awarded: 57% female

Masters Degrees awarded: 58% female

Doctoral Degrees awarded: 53% female

Law School Graduates: 54% female

Medical School Graduates: 52% female

Sister LaReine was obviously on to something. These stats are the latest available. In most cases, 2019-2021. As they say on Wall Street, this could be simply a “correction”, inasmuch as women have been held down by men for centuries,and they are finally claiming their piece of the action, so to speak. I mentioned the stronger/weaker sex thing earlier. Have things changed? My congressperson here in Tidewater Virginia is one Elaine Luria, a retired Navy commander – her last billet was Commanding Officer of a destroyer! We have a long way to go, still, but are getting there. The last male “oppressors” are getting older and retiring. Are women too strong for men?

Meanwhile, the dropout of young men seems to extend to employment. Obviously, the “great recession” of 2008 and the more recent pandemic had a considerable impact, although most of the pandemic job losses have reappeared. However, anectodally, there are a large number of service sector jobs unfilled in places like the Tidewater area of Virginia. How are people living? Where are people living? In parents’ basements? According to a RAND Corporation analysis I read recently, 64% of unemployed guys under 36 have had some brush with the law, and 46% have been convicted of something. Obviously, this has a chilling impact on job prospects.

Full disclosure: I am a “coastal elite”, having lived all of my life in New York City and various parts of Northern and coastal Virginia. I can only read about (and try to imagine) how life is in the Rust Belt and the Deep South,where the opioid addiction crisis has ravaged large parts of these states (not that my part of the country has escaped it).

Demographically, there are serious problems afoot in many parts of the world. China, which had a fertility problem a generation ago, chose to limit female births. As a result, males greatly outnumber females in contemporary China. This has had a number of effects – birth rates below replacement, not to mention a plethora of social problems brought about as a result of a female shortage. Not good! Women moderate men’s behavior and curb many of our worst instincts (and cause us to live longer, as a result). In our own country, white men will soon become a minority (if they are not already).

Since I don’t really understand what has caused this, I’m not about to propose solutions. I hope those in authority are at least aware of it.

Where have all the young men gone, long time passing…….

It’s Even Worse Than We Thought

Several months ago, I postulated on history’s ranking of POTUS 45. I ranked him as, unequivocably, The Worst Ever. Little did I know how bad he really was. Like it or not, we need an update.

Presidential historians used to rank the several weak sisters surrounding Abraham Lincoln (Buchanan, Fillmore, Pierce and Andrew Johnson), along with 20th century figures such as Richard Nixon and Warren Harding as the worst. None of these even begin to approach, in mendacity and sheer incompetence, #45.

No, I’m not a political scientist. I did spend a few decades as a federal worker and manager, including a tour as a naval officer (I couldn’t find a doctor to sign off on a 4-F draft status because of flat feet). In that capacity, I served as a Custodian of Registered Publications. I was responsible for maintenance, inventory and general safeguarding of classified stuff. Woe betide me if I lost, misplaced or shared any page, paragraph or sentence. The penalty was a courts -martial. I can only imagine the outrage felt by many Custodians when stories appeared in the media about how POTUS 45 had taken a bunch of these to his retirement home, and, to put it delicately, flushed some of them down the toilet! Why is he still walking around a free man?

Then, there are the events of January 6, 2021. With apologies to the Eagles, do I believe my lyin’ eyes? Here is the Chief Executive on video exhorting followers to proceed to the Capitol for a, er, peaceful demonstration. Cost the lives of several policemen, for what that’s worth. What is the commonly accepted term for these events? I thank it’s an insurrection. To the extent I can trust my lyin’ eyes, sure looks like the man committed treason. Why is he still walking around free??

As I write this, it is near the end of income tax season. I think, at long last,the man has been forced to make public some of his tax returns. What we seem to know, for certain, is that he valued some of his numerous properties low to evade taxes, and high to obtain loans. I think the term of art is income tax evasion. Didn’t they get Al Capone for that? Why not The Donald?

At the moment, we are shipping billions of dollars worth of military hardware to Ukraine, a victim of the “brilliant” (if demented) dictator of Russia. POTUS #45 is an unabashed admirer of Vlad the Terrible. He has expressed, in the earliest days of the “special military exercise” his admiration of how “brilliant” it is.

We often speak in parables about how “nobody is above the law”. How about “equal justice under the law”. Somewhere in Texas lives an ordinary person who wasn’t aware that her legal status prohibited her from casting a ballot in the 2016 presidential election (bet she didn’t vote for the Republican cabdidate). Fortunately, the election police voided the ballot, but she was sentenced to five years in the slam for this heinous crime. Meanwhile, POTUS 45’s Chief of Staff voted twice, once of which was in North Carolina, where he had bought a trailer, but never spent a single night in it. Is he doing time for this? I doubt it.

One of his sorriest legacies is one we will be dealing with for decades – best expressed by the term “hollow government”. Besides placing numerous totally unqualified individuals into key cabinet and sub-cabinet positions, for the most part these were put in as “acting”, thereby avoiding any pesky advise-and- consent by Congress. These could be fired more readily (sound like a TV show the man starred in, by chance?). His son-in law had a bulging portfolio of serious problems he had no clue how to handle.

As a populace, we Americans tend to be contemptious of government. This is one reason why the party which wins the presidency tends to do poorly in the off-year elections. Another effect of this ingrained attitude is the en masse resignation of just about all appointed officials, even if the party/president is reelected. The result is a lag in filling major appointments in most agencies for at least a yesr. Why hasn’t the Attorney General prosecuted any of the higher-ups (maybe including #45)? Probably because more help is needed. Much more. Prosecuting rich, well connected.folks is, to say the least, extremely labor intensive.

Don’t believe your lyin’ eyes………….

The Making of a Chemist

Chemists are made, not (save a very few) born. I started about age 10, when I acquired a chemistry set. In those days, the set of choice was an A.C. Gilbert (still very much around; check out the Amazon official site). I haven’t seen a set since the mid Fifties, but I’m sure they’ve been sanitized to the point of boredom.

Back in the day, a Gilbert set could be used, for example, to produce a gas with a “diabolical odor” like rotten eggs. Naturally, I had to try it out in my unventilated lab in the basement. The procedure called for heating sulfur and paraffin in a test tube (I have never heard of this method,to this day),but it sure worked! Unfortunately, I developed a world class headache and nausea. Years later, I found out that hydrogen sulfide was as toxic as hydrogen cyanide, the active ingredient in gas chambers. I’m sure the lawyers have gotten involved and spoiled a lot of fun (and probably saved some lives).

The rather small amount of chemicals in the set needed replenishment from time to time. You could buy stuff from Gilbert, but you’d pay the price. Fortunately, a friend recommended John H.Wynn, who sold chemicals to chemistry majors. To get to Wynn’s shop on West 23rd Street involved a subway ride (with one transfer from GG local train to the F express) from our home in Queens. I was 11 at the time, and my brother Alfred was 7. I needed to take him along (there’s strength in numbers, after all). My parents’ sole concern was that we had to dress suitably in case we met someone we knew (after all, NYC’s population was 7 million at the time), since we were going to the City. Imagine trusting kids to do this, in this day and time…….

We made the trek several times over a few years, to the point where Mr. Wynn trusted us to buy concentrated sulfuric and nitric acids (but not glycerin, which would have enabled us to make nitroglycerin, which is truly bad stuff).

We also dabbled in gunpowder and pipe bombs for the Fourth of July,and tried out small scale making of moonshine. I won’t bore you with the “how” of these pursuits. There are plenty of them on the Internet).

The advancement of technology has changed the learning experience of chemistry. I’ve mentioned in previous posts that we have emphasized the solving of problems at the expense of what used to be called “descriptive chemistry”, where we looked at chemicals in terms of what they looked like, smelled like, their physical state and other aspects. For example, yeah, hydrogen sulfide smelled like rotten eggs, hydrogen cyanide smelled like burnt almonds, mercury is a liquid, chlorine smells like a swimming pool, fun stuff like that. In many ways, we’ve taken the joy out of studying it. We’ve made it the “toughest course in high school”. To what end?

I have also learned that little or nothing which I learned over the years was a waste of time. During my years of teaching high school, on one occasion, a “stink bomb” was released into the hall. My well trained nose instantly identified it as hydrogen sulfide. The factoid I mentioned earlier as to its toxicity vis a vis hydrogen cyanide which I discovered at the time was of great interest to Al Burch, the principal . This was during the innocent era prior to school shootings (although a year or two later, the first of them took place at Columbine High School). As the saying goes, “what goes around, comes around”.

The risk averse nature of our society has resulted in the de-emphasis of laboratory hands on experience. Too risky and expensive. Can’t we simulate this with computers? No, we can’t! In my later years, I taught a community college course, “Chemistry for Nurses”, the only chemistry course required – and it didn’t even include a lab! I had to sort of sneak exercises in taking some measurements for these kids. A neice of ours earned a nursing degree from Villanova in the 70’s, and took almost as much chemistry as I did. Maybe RN’s don’t need as much chemistry nowadays.


During a recent medical appointment, along with the usual chit-chat, the Physicians Assistant mentioned how she had had trouble with “O Chem” as an undergraduate. Turns out she meant Organic Chemistry. The word “organic” has, in modern times, acquired several meanings it didn’t have, back in the day. We speak of a subclass of food as a prominent example meaning, supposedly, that it was grown or processed without use of pesticides.

Organic Chemistry is a part of the science which deals with compounds containing one element, carbon, as an essential part. As I have mentioned in other posts, carbon-containing compounds far outnumber compounds consisting of the other 117 or so elements. Naming these presents another challenge to us consisting of yet another foreign language. Compounds of carbon are tied together, as it were, by covalent bonds, meaning that electrons are shared, rather than given/taken as is the case with ionic bonds.

To name this universe of stuff, we need some rules. Officially, the formal system is called the IUPAC. (It must be complicated because the acronym is 5 letters long!) Stands for International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry, a mouthful in itself. I won’t induce any more sleep by trying to explain it further, but to point out that there are a mess of so called “trivial”names for them, used by practitioners.

Many of the chemicals we ingest are organic. The vast majority of pharmaceuticals are organic compounds. Illicit drugs are. Fossil fuels are . Proteins, carbohydrates and fats are. Sounds like Cole Porter lyrics? You get my drift….

Organic compounds can be formed by long “chains” of carbon atoms, 30, 40,50 or more, while inorganic compounds are considerably shorter. Since the carbon atom has 4 valence electrons, it can form bonds with four other elements (including even another carbon atom). Atoms (or groups of atoms) bonded to carbons are known as “functional groups”, since they can react chemically to form other compounds. This gives rise

to the extremely large number of organic chemicals.

The simplest (and, might I add, boring) organic compounds are the hydrocarbons. They burn, forming water, carbon dioxide (and, under the wrong conditions, carbon monoxide), and heat- and that’s about it. They keep us warm at a price – greenhouse gases. Halogens (Cl, F, Br, I) bond with carbon, as well as -OH (alcohols), -COOH (acids). These elements undergo numerous reactions to form other compounds.

As a practical matter, organic chemists specialize in certain groups of compounds. The chemicals I tended to work with included pharmaceuticals and such bad boys as cocaine, heroin and LSD, to mention a few of the home remedies out there. Although my work tended toward analytical chemistry (what is it, and how much is present) I did some work on synthesis (how do you make stuff). One of my earliest gigs, as a DEA program manager, was to “reverse engineer” procedures believed to be followed by “chemists” working in the south of France (making the purest heroin out there). I took advantage of my Franco-American heritage to translate recipes from French to English. We had lofty ambitions to develop remote sensing technologies which, unfortunately were not sufficiently mature to take on the road, so to speak. (as it happened, we were able to detect wineries and dry cleaning establishments, but, alas, no heroin refineries).

Not for lack of trying.

Fun with Chemistry – Blowing Stuff Up

Profound question from my high school classes: “Mr. Canaff, are we going to blow stuff up?

Blowing stuff up involves chemical reactions. For the most part, these reactions need to be rapid, exothermic and have one or more products which are gaseous. What do all these terms and conditions mean?

Chemical reactions are not always rapid, to say the least. There is a subset, so to speak, of extremely rapid ones. All chemical reactions involve a gain or loss of energy. Reactions which release heat to the surroundings are exothermic, while those which do not are endothermic.

What’s with gaseous products? It involves the taking up of space, what physical scientists define as “volume”. Basically, all matter exists in one of three phases: solid. liquid and gas. Solids and liquids are often called “condensed states”, in that the atoms/molecules are touching each other. With gases, on the other hand, the atoms/molecules are not in contact. Let’s look at a familiar substance – water. The molecular weight of water is about 18 grams. In the logical setup of the Metric System. one gram of liquid takes up 1 milliliter of room, so to speak, so that 18 g of water would take up 18 ml. Barely a half a shot glass. At the boiling point, the gaseous mole of water would take in excess of 30 liters, about 17,000 times!

Of course, water doesn’t burn, Heating it to the boiling point represents a phase change from liquid to gas (steam). Let’s check out something which does burn: propane, C3H8. The balanced equation: C3H8(l) + 5 O2(g) —–> 3 CO2(g) + 4 H2O(g) (s,l and g are phases).

Both products are gaseous. For each mole of propane, 7 moles of gas are formed. The volume change is, to say the least, considerable. Gas volumes also increase with temperature. The reaction is strongly exothermic. You need to cook those hamburgers! If the reaction is carried out in the open (gas grill) where the volume change is dissipated, no problem. If, however, the reaction takes place in a closed environment, (you forget to leave the cover open) watch out!!

Then there is the “classic” gunpowder recipe:

4KClO3(s) + 3S(s) + 3C(s) —-> 3SO2(g) + 3CO2(g) + 4KCl(s)

Here again, we start with three solids and end up with six moles of gas. The huge volume of gas formed, having no place else to go, is funneled along a gun barrel and pushes bullets along. Some of the energy released causes the action/reaction bump along the shooter’s hand or shoulder. (Full disclosure: I HATE guns!).

In addition to the noise, one often feels a “shock wave”. This is caused by the sudden compression of the atmosphere in the vicinity of the explosion.

So,there you have it, boys and girls. Chemistry can be fun!!

Stoichiometry (What you really hated about CHEM 101)

It ain’t that bad. Just the darn numbers. If you read the last part of my previous post:

1 mole = 6.022 exp 23 = X grams

What is a mole, anyhow? No, it’s not a burrowing furry animal, the bane of gardeners. It is a count of 6.022 exp 23 of……whatever. The number is named for Amedeo Avogadro, a 19 century Italian chemist. That number, being that HUUUGE, must count something very small. What could be smaller than atoms or molecules? (Well, a lot of things, actually – how about a mole of virus, or is it virae????).

So, if we could, given an imaginery set of molecular tweezers and a near infinite amount of time, count that number of, let’s say, carbon atoms, we would accumulate a mole of carbon atoms. Since this is, to say the least, impractical, we need a better way. Turns out that a mole of carbon can be easily weighed out – 12.011 grams is the weight of a mole, 6.022 exp 23 carbon atoms. All you need is a Periodic Table and a balance (scale)! As a practical matter, you don’t even need to bother with Avogadro’s Constant to solve the vast majority of problems in stoichimetry (there’s that word again…).

I am old enough to remember the days before calculators were invented. We used slide rules and logarithms (remember those)? It wasn’t until I got my first professional job as an analytical chemist with FDA in 1960 that I got to use a rudimentary calculator. Many of the stoichiometry problems we worked on in chemistry courses involved setting up the equations, but not solving them.

Back to the present. Grams to moles calculations are necessary because (along with molecular tweezers) there is no such thing as a mole weighing device (balance). Since 12.011 grams (say) of carbon equals one mole, we need to be able to convert from one to the other. (Incidentally, one mole of sulfur weighs 32.06 grams; one mole of uranium weighs 238.03 grams). How much does 0.45 moles of sulfur weigh? You guessed it! 14.43 grams! So, if you want to know how much does 3.45 moles of sulfur weighs, simply multiply 3.45 moles x 32.06 grams per mole = 110.61 grams. Ain’t calculators grand!

We suffered through balancing equations last post. The coefficients for each chemical in a balanced equation represent the moles. We convert to grams by multiplying moles by molecular weight (the sum of weights from the Periodic Table for each of the compounds). What could be simpler? In a similar fashion, we can convert grams to moles by dividing by molecular weight.

OK, consider a reaction often used to produce oxygen (that is, molecular oxygen, O2). Potassium chlorate is heated to produce potassium chloride and oxygen:

KClO3 —–> KCl + O2

Balancing is simple: 2KClO3 ——> 2KCl + 3O2

Supposing I need to produce 2,000 grams of oxygen. How much KClO3 do I need? From the balanced equation, for every 3 moles of oxygen I need to react 2 moles of KClO3. How many moles are there in 2,000 grams of oxygen? If we set up an expression (whatever that means) such that 2.000 grams x 32.0g/mole = 62.5 moles O2. Since 3 moles of O2 are produced from 2 moles of KClO3, we need 41.7 moles of KClO3. Since the molecular weight of KClO3 is 122.6 (39.1+35.5+48.0), the answer is………………………5,112 grams.

Parting thoughts:

A necessary skill one needs to master is the art of recognition of a correct answer to a problem. When I was teaching, I had to spend an inordinate amount of time trying to teach students how to use their calculator. Many of the problems involved the numerous operating systems in use at that time. I doubt that that has much improved today. For example, say the correct answer was 2.84 exp -3. It is conceivable that another student might get 0.00284. What is the right answer??

A colleague of mine at O’Connell H.S. coined a phrase, which should be a mantra of sorts, Chem is Try. It’s not rocket science, in the current idiom. Just need to work at it.

Many of you might ask, as my high school kids used to, “Mr Canaff, when do we blow stuff up?” I’ll deal with that in a future post.

Bean Counting 101 (Balancing Chemical Equations)

No, this is not an accounting paper. I can’t even balance my check book.

The fundamental principle in chemistry is the Law of Conservation of Matter. Simply stated, stuff in an ordinary chemical reaction is neither created nor destroyed. (I can’t account for physicists who monkey around with matter and energy…….).

Matter, of course, can change in all sorts of ways; isn’t that why we do chemical reactions? No matter what happens, however, the same atoms present at the start will be there after the (dust clears?) reaction ends.

Some jargon: chemicals present at the start of the reaction are termed reactants, those formed as a result are termed products.

Here is a simple one: C + H2 —–> CH4 On the reactant (left) side of the reaction, we count one C and 2H’s. On the right, one C and 4H’s. If I double the H2‘s on the reactant side the thing balances: C + 2H2 —–> CH4 Seems simple enough. A ground rule: You may change coefficients (the big #’s) but never the subscripts.

Let’s try another one: C2H6 +O2—–> CO2 + H2O. This is a good way to keep warm. We burn (combine with oxygen) a hydrocarbon (C2H6). The products are carbon dioxide, water and heat (which is the only product we care about). OK, we start with:




and end up with:




We can double the CO2, giving us balanced carbons. If we put a 3 ahead of H2O, this balances hydrogen. At this point, we end with 7 O’s on the product side. What’s on the reactant side? Oxygen, in the form of O2. What’s this? Reality! There are several atoms which go through life as “diatomic atoms”. This is to pair up valence electrons (unpaired electrons are called “free radicals” a chemical no no. But I digress….). In any case, one is tempted to break up the diatom and balance by putting 7O’s there. DON’T DO IT!! Instead, multiply all the compounds by 2, and end up with:

2C2H6 +7O2 —–> 4CO2 + 6H2O

Incidentally, the second equation represents a class of compounds referred to as “hydrocarbons”. Their general equation is CN H2N+2 . They all combine with oxygen producing carbon dioxide and water (and heat). Since digestable food consists mostly of carbon, our bodies manufacture carbon dioxide and water as waste products. Biologists call this “metabolism”. As Sam Cooke famously observed back in the day. I “don’t know much about biology” (too complicated), but along with the energy food produces we produce water (urine) and CO2 in our exhalation.

Why do we need to balance equations? Because if we want to make new stuff, we need to be able to measure out the equivalent amounts to make a desired amount of product (and I don’t mean heat!). Next, we’ll look at counting atoms and molecules. Keep this in mind: one mole = 6.02 exp 23 atoms or molecules = X number of grams. We’ll check this out next.

Chemical Formulas (Formulae? It’s Geek to Me)

Now that we’ve looked into naming chemicals, we need to look into formulas. There are several types of formula, each providing us with information. At its simplest form (molecular) the formula provides us with the elements comprising the compound and the number of each. Previously we considered two oxides of carbon, one containing equal numbers of carbon and oxygen (CO, carbon monoxide) and (CO2, carbon dioxide). The former depicts a substance containing equal amounts of carbon and oxygen, and the latter where carbon is chemically bonded with 2 atoms of oxygen.

There are several types of chemical formulas. One of the things chemists often need to do is calculate molecular weight. From the simplest formula, we can calculate the sum of the weights of the elements. For instance, consider baking soda, NaHCO3. From the periodic table, we see sodium having an atomic weight of 22.90, hydrogen weighs in at 1.008, and the 3 atoms of oxygen at 47.997, for a total of ……..drum roll:71.905. (There are two numbers for each element: single one without decimals, atomic number, and one with a decimal and several places, atomic weight). Normally, one sums up all the atomic weight numbers, then rounds to one or two decimal places.

This process works OK for simple compounds. As you know, life just ain’t so simple. For example, the sugar glucose has the formula C6H12O6. This tells us how to calculate its molecular weight, but…….this formula is shared by the sugar we call fructose. To distinguish between them, we need to show how the C’s, H’s and O’s are bonded to each other.

What difference does this make? Quite a bit, at times. For instance, the sweetness power (did I coin a phrase here?) is different between them (why else would we care about them, anyhow). Clearly, we need to go greater in depth.

How can we bond a total of 24 atoms to each other ? The C’s are bonded in four directions. Most are bonded to, on one side, an O which in turn is attached to an H. In another direction, the C (usually called the “central atom”) has an H on one side, and O bonded to H on the other. It can be written as -CHOH. Each C is then bonded to the rest of the molecule. Essentially, the difference between glucose and fructose is in what plane the H’s and OH’s are oriented. Told you this isn’t simple. The term of art for two (or more) compounds having the same formula (collection of atoms) is isomer. Fructose and glucose are isomers.

In most general chemistry courses, the topics taught stress inorganic chemicals; the reality is that the overwhelming majority of chemicals are organic. Glucose and fructose are organic chemicals. As I mentioned previously, if the compound contains carbon, it’s probably organic. But not always.

There are several ways to depict formulae on paper. Each provides additional pieces of information which might be needed by practioners. The simplest are molecular (just the atoms present, with the numbers of each, Just the facts, ma’am, to coin a (very old) phrase. We can use these to look at balancing equations.

This is where the fun ends (or, maybe, begins).

By the way, glucose and fructose can combine with each other, lose a molecule of dihydrogen oxide (do I mean water??) and form sucrose. How ’bout that!