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Chemical reactions light up Fort Lewis College science show

Demonstration, experiments hosted at first open house since pandemic
True Newsilver, left, Jycole Bush and Haylee Steffes pass out taste strips to let kids and parents test if they have a “super tasting” gene at their Chemistry of Taste booth during the Fort Lewis College Science Open House on Saturday. (Christian Burney/Durango Herald)

Hundreds of people attended Fort Lewis College’s first Science Open House since its postponement because of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.

Participants on Saturday were treated to “A Show of Ice and Fire,” a series of chemistry demonstrations examining what happens to substances and materials at various temperature extremes.

Michael Grubb, physical chemistry professor of six years at FLC, led the show with help from Yisrael Lattke, visiting assistant chemistry professor.

Grubb demonstrated a variety of experiments involving hydrogen and oxygen-hydrogen balloons bursting into fireballs when exposed to heat; the ignition of hydrogen and chlorine gases when exposed to blue lasers; and the rapid oxidation of a single gummy bear and the ensuing flames.

“We’re doing some experiments, some demonstrations of things that are very, very cold and very, very hot,” he said. “So from -320 degrees Fahrenheit to about 6,000 degrees Fahrenheit.”

Fort Lewis College chemistry professor Michael Grubb demonstrates the various colors of flames that can be created by applying heat to different kinds of metals Saturday during the FLC Science Open House. (Christian Burney/Durango Herald)

Grubb didn’t start his own college career in the pursuit of chemistry, he said – he started as a computer science major. But in his junior year, he decided he wanted to focus his studies on something he can take advantage of in college – you can have a computer at home. A chemistry lab? Not as practical.

The chemistry building at Texas A&M University was next door to the computer science building. One day, Grubb decided to peek his head in.

“Once I started doing stuff in the lab instead of classrooms, it was a lot more fun and engaging, and I went and got my Ph.D. and so forth,” he said.

One of Grubb’s demonstrations was the application of flames to various metals to make them glow specific colors. He achieved orange, blue and red flames. He said the experiment applies the same premise that is used to make light shows with fireworks.

His laser experiment demonstrated the varying powers of light energy across the color spectrum. He exposed a mixture of hydrogen gas and chlorine gas to two different colors of light using laser pointers. The green laser pointer had no effect on the gas, but the blue laser ignited them. How so? Blue light has a higher frequency than green light, he said.

“It’s the energy (of blue light),” he said. “The frequency of blue light is higher than the frequency of green light. On the electromagnetic spectrum, red is the lowest energy and the frequency in the energy increases as you go up to blue.”

Chlorine molecule bonds are “somewhat strong,” he said, and the bonds require a certain amount of energy to break. Once they break, a chain reaction is triggered.

“So the green light didn’t have enough energy to do that but the blue light did,” he said.

The gunpowder experiment consisted of a simple mixture of charcoal, potassium nitrate and sulfur, Grubbs said. That recipe was used in early gun models and creates a white smoke when ignited because of the potassium salts within the recipe. He applied heat and the audience watched the smoke rise.

“A Show of Ice and Fire” wasn’t the only science demonstrated on Saturday. Students showed off interactive experiments of their own at booths set up in and around the chemistry building.

Anna McCabe, left, and Jasmine Keyes show off chemical structures that various scents are made of at the Fort Lewis College Science Open House on Saturday. (Christian Burney/Durango Herald)

Two such demonstrations were the chemistries of smell and taste, which were featured side-by-side near the chemistry building.

Jasmine Keyes, junior chemistry major, and Anna McCabe, sophomore biochemistry major, were showing off the chemical structures that make up various scents. They also had scents available for kids and visitors to sniff.

“We’re letting kids smell (the scents) and letting them guess the smell,” Keyes said. “Then we’ll explain to them what the chemical structure is and then we’ll tell them the specific (chemical) groups.”

Scents included vanilla, pineapple, lime, lavender, VapoRub or eucalyptus and black licorice candy.

The kids also had the opportunity to build their own chemical structures, after which Keyes and McCabe would ask them what they would name their chemical creations, Keyes said.

Grubbs said to look out for the science show every year.

“Fort Lewis has a really good science program,” he said.

He said FLC has great facilities and a lot of opportunities for students to do hands-on experiments that aren’t necessarily available in larger universities.

“I just want everyone to know what a great idea it is to study here and how all of our students can go to any Ph.D. program, any industry,” he said.


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