Summer at BMC

Sun-soaked postcards from Bryn Mawr College

Alicia Makepeace ’14: Water in Disguise

alicia makepeaceChemistry can change day-to-day depending on the weather (humidity in particular) and other factors. Recently, we were testing an alternative oxidative method that uses copper salts instead of mercury. Originally, we saw semi-promising results that warranted further exploration. Therefore, more members of the lab started testing the method on various substrates. Some substrates showed promise. However, the very next day the same substrates posed problems, showing more conversion to unwanted side products. It was not until two or so days into unsuccessful experimentation that our lab instructor made what we originally thought to be an unrelated inquiry.

Our glassware was not coming clean and since we rinse with acetone this made him wonder about the authenticity of the acetone. Instead of being acetone, the substance appeared to be water. Magnesium sulfate reacts exothermically with water and we, therefore, added some to a beaker of the “acetone.” This produced an extremely exothermic reaction, indicating that the substance was mostly water with a tiny bit of acetone. The solvent system for our copper oxidations was acetone and this “unrelated inquiry” was not unrelated anymore. It meant that over the past few days we had been running reactions in water instead of the desired solvent.

Although this ordeal meant wasted lab time and starting material, we were determined to be positive and take away some lessons:

  1. Most of our starting materials are not soluble in water
  2. The chemistry was unable to fully take place in water
  3. We need to be more careful with the origin of our solvent

In times of frustration, especially with research, it is essential to remind oneself that in the end, some learning is taking place and that is all that matters. This has continued to be prevalent in other trying times during our research. This and the notion that eventual success will occur is what carry us through each day.

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