The Oil Bath

A blog mainly about chemistry and driving trucks, describing how the world looks from the bench of a lab and how the world looks from the seat of a cab.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Chemistry in zeroGee

I think space travel is cool. Not that anyone is actually doing any, they're basically flying in circles for no reason. And NASA are a bunch of wimps, always waffling, all reluctant to go up and service the Hubble although that's the one thing they have up there that makes pretty pictures - which are probably a good thing as far as taxpayer relations - hey, I'll go fix the Hubble. I mean, 98% chance of survival in a Shuttle flight, that isn't too bad, I'll be a hero otherwise I'll be dead but it'll hopefully not be slow and painful at least. 98%, I'd do it. I'll do it myself, it doesn't take a huge crew, c'mon, that thing needs the pilot to push like one button the whole time! I love the Shuttle though, like when they say that it always leaves a trail of broken foam and other junk behind it. I had a car like that once.

Anyway, I think zero G would be cool. And if I was to go up to fix the Hubble, I'd want to bring my cat. Because if I didn't come back, nobody else would want him. Mainly I'd love to see him in zero G. Imagine 25 pounds of angry teeth, claws, and flab, floating helplessly in the middle of the air while desperately seeking to claw or bite something. That'd be awesome.

But I've been wondering - what would chemistry be like in zero G? Sure, you could run reactions in sealed flasks. But good luck heating them in an oil or water bath, there goes the hotplate - maybe microwave reactions would be better? Those are cool, sealed-tube and nice even heat, I have a lot of fun with those. Sep funnels would just not be a very good idea. Flash chromatography would probably work. Filtration would be an interesting operation, too, wouldn't it? Probably people would use some sort of frit-bottomed vial with a cap at both ends.

And distillation - I've never seen a distillation setup that doesn't rely on gravity. Gravity keeps the liquids down and the vapors up, condensing and dripping back down a fractional column, all that fun stuff. Could it be done in zero gravity? I suppose the distillation apparatus would probably basically be a centrifuge of some sort, wouldn't it have to be?

And I bet magnetic stirplates would need modification - they really mostly don't attract the stirbar that much that it would work without gravity, right? But pulling harder on it might make it stick. That'd be a total challenge.

Or come to think of it, how come magnetic stirplates suck so much now? You always end up watching your stirbar feebly twitch. So you turn it up a bit, and it threatens to spin, goes for a bit, then flings itself to the side of the flask, oops, too fast! Frustrated, you try it just on the bare plate and it works, so is it the viscosity of your mixture or that extra 1/8" of glass that so frustrates the magnetic field that it just cannot do the job? Been using these things for years and I guess I've amassed a collection of "lucky" stirbars at this point. I honestly don't know why they even made some of them.

So this makes me appreciate biological systems, which do all sorts of fascinating chemistry and work nearly fine in zero G. Sure, that last astronaut who fainted was kind of wobbly when she got back, but she was fine until she got back into gravity, and this is probably some systemic effect, individual cells are plugging away just fine. Yet I can't imagine how one could do, for example, a fractional distillation under vacuum in zero gravity. It's something neat to think about.

And maybe if NASA lets me ride a shuttle I'll bring some glassware to mess around with. That and a cat. Honestly, all an astronaut has to do is push one button anyway, I could sure do that, I could fly the Shuttle. And only 1 chance in 50 of fiery death, what a deal!


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