Chemistry club plays with explosives

The crowd reacted in unison. Gasps filled the air much like the bright light that blasted through the dark amphitheater. Suddenly, the faces of the chemistry students and audience alike were no longer hidden by darkness.

Sparks and fire are not cause for alarm, however. These are professionals. Or at least they will be in a few years.

Chemistry students wowed the packed outdoor venue again this year with Demos in the Dark Oct. 19 and 20. The dark outdoor setting is perfect to display the drama of chemical reactions.

“We were looking for a way to celebrate National Chemistry week,” Dean of the College of Sciences and Humanities Dr. Darrell Watson said.

He has overseen the program since it began in 1992. He also is the emcee.

“We came up with the idea of doing these demonstrations out in the amphitheater where we could do fires and explosions like we couldn’t do in the building,” Watson said, “Sometimes I think it is just an excuse for me to blow things up.”

Dean of the College of Sciences and the College of Humanities, Dr. Darrell Watson (left) and senior chemistry Michelle Del’Homme do an experiment that turned explosive magnesium into pure molten lava. Photo by Evan Duncan

Dean of the College of Sciences and the College of Humanities, Dr. Darrell Watson (left) and senior chemistry Michelle Del’Homme do an experiment that turned explosive magnesium into pure molten lava. Photo by Evan Duncan

Sophomore biology and chemistry major Quy Nguyen jumped at the opportunity to help out.

“It’s a show we put on for kids and students every year to show how chemistry can be fun,” he said.

“We had a lot of reactions to do, so I wanted to help. It was really fun to show off chemistry.”

Sponsored by chemistry honor society Sigma Pi, the event showcased experiments with a variety of chemicals. The community was invited for both nights of the performance. Price of admission was a canned good to be donated to Hope for the Hungry. In total, the audience gave 613 pounds of food.

The Heart of Texas section of the American Chemical Society, the chemistry department and the Science Education Resource Center also helped sponsor the event. Dr. Watson does demos every week for local schools.

Just as in the lab, not everything went as expected. The presenters practiced intensely to perfect their demonstrations, but glitches happened. Nguyen had some issues with his exploding can at Thursday’s performance.

“Even though we practiced the experiments, it’s not 100 percent sure it will happen every time,” he said. “On Tuesday it worked perfectly. Thursday something happened, and I had to readjust it. I had to do a speed fix.”

The can was just one of many fire-filled experiments. Senior chemistry major Michelle Del’Homme dealt with perhaps the most frightening display. Explosive magnesium turned iron oxide potassium permagangene into pure molten lava in one of her experiments.

The flames were so large she leaped away from the blast. The novice smelter enjoyed being a part of the biggest and most dangerous demonstrations.

“We had to put a lot of magnesium in there, and it just kind of exploded,” she said.

Watson loves those kinds of reactions. He saved the best for last.

A variety of balloons filled with different chemicals were brought on stage and burst with fire. Each set had a different reaction. The final set, red balloons, made a sound like fireworks as they broke.

Watson said the children aren’t the only ones who benefit from the event.

“(UMHB students) get really excited about chemistry from that. They wish their classes were as much fun as Demos in the Dark,” he said. “They love it when the kids come up and interact at the end as well. It is great to be looked up to as a role model.”

Author: Evan Duncan

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