Note (12/2015): Hi there! I'm taking some time off here to focus on other projects for a bit. As of October 2016, those other projects include a science book series for kids titled Things That Make You Go Yuck! -- available at Barnes and Noble, Amazon and (hopefully) a bookstore near you!

Co-author Jenn Dlugos and I are also doing some extremely ridiculous things over at Drinkstorm Studios, including our award-winning webseries, Magicland.

There are also a full 100 posts right here in the archives, and feel free to drop me a line at with comments, suggestions or wacky cold fusion ideas. Cheers!

· Categories: Chemistry
What I’ve Learned:

Ytterbium, utterbium, we all terb for ytterbium!
“Ytterbium, utterbium, we all terb for ytterbium!”

You might see “ytterbium” and think it sprang from some Scrabble champ’s wet dream, or that it’s a young left winger drafted by the Winnipeg Jets. And it probably is. But also, it’s a little more.

Specifically, ytterbium is a chemical element — atomic number 70, if you’re scoring at home — and a member of the lanthanide series. And while “lanthanide” sounds like another puck-chucking hockey punk from East Brrritscoldistan, the series (plus a couple of kindred elements nearby on the periodic table) has another name, somewhat easier on the tongue: rare earth elements.

While easier to pronounce, it turns out “rare earth elements” isn’t really a great name. Granted, the “elements” part is accurate. And they do come from “earth”, or rather usually buried under quite a lot of it. But they’re not “rare”, for the most part, if you’re talking about the percentage of the planet’s crust they make up. The real issue with rare earth elements is they’re not often found in easily-mined ores. They tend to spread out in trace amounts, and clump up with similar elements so they’re difficult to separate. Many, including ytterbium, are fairly common; they’re just a pain in the ass to work with.

Still, it’s hard to blame scientists for the “rare” label. Nobody wants a “persnickety earth element” series on their periodic chart.

Speaking of persnickety, ytterbium certainly qualifies. At room temperature, it’s a shiny silvery metal that’s also also soft and squishable — like Play-Doh made from aluminum foil. This would be awesome, except that pure ytterbium will also irritate your eyes and skin, produce toxic fumes, violently explode and catch on fire in the way that water can’t put out. So it sits there, saying “play with me!“, all the while plotting your destruction in fourteen different ways. Like an evil sparkly porcupine, or a silver-plated Joker.

Which, I suppose, is coming. Super.

Because it’s difficult to extract — or because it’s dangerous as hell, maybe — only about fifty tons of ytterbium are produced worldwide each year. That’s not much, relatively speaking, but it makes sense because we haven’t found many things we can use ytterbium for.

(Contrast this with Adam Sandler movies, which are hauled in by the billions of tons every year, and no one’s found anything yet that those are good for. Chemists one, Hollywood zero.)

Still, ytterbium is good for a couple of things — and the very best we have at one. Certain ytterbium isotopes can produce gamma rays, which can be used in medical imaging, similar to X-rays. It can also be added to stainless steel to optimize certain properties, and to the materials used to generate solid state and other lasers.

But where ytterbium really shines is in telling time. According to the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), ytterbium atomic clocks are the most stable in the world. NIST’s ytterbium clock is so accurate, it could keep “perfect timing for a period comparable to the age of the universe”. Tough titties, Timex. And suck it, cesium.

So that’s ytterbium’s claim to fame. It may never hoist the Stanley Cup or stretch across a Triple Word Score — although, could you imagine? — but it has one thing going for it: it’ll take a licking and keep on ticking.

But seriously, don’t lick ytterbium. That would hurt so bad. Ow.

Actual Science:
The Guardian / GrrlScientistYtterbium
Uncertain PrinciplesLaser-cooled atoms: ytterbium
NISTNIST ytterbium atomic clocks set record for stability
NatureChemistry: degrees of separation

Image sources: (ytterbium), CBC Sports (Y…y…y…ytterbium the Jet), MoviePilot (silver-toothed Joker), Memes of Doom (Adam and Adam)

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· Categories: Chemistry
What I’ve Learned:

Ionic liquids: When all the little ants go chemical-warfaring.
“Ionic liquids: When all the little ants go chemical-warfaring.”

An ionic liquid is a salt that’s in the liquid state. But let’s define “salt”, because in this context, it’s not just for shakers and hot buttered popcorn.

Chemically, a salt is any mixture of positively-charged ions (called “cations”) and negatively-charged ions (aka “anions”). Salts form when an acid (which contains positive ions) and a base (chock full of negative ions) mix and neutralize each other. The best-known salt is made of sodium cations and chloride anions, and it’s so common it gets the saltiest name possible: “salt”. Or “table salt”. Or “that stuff the chef forgot to put on the bean salad, and that’s why the dude got Chopped”.

Any salt can be an ionic liquid, under the right conditions — even sodium chloride. You just have to heat it to fifteen hundred degrees or so Fahrenheit.

And then pay twelve bucks at some upscale Euro-gastro-bistro to have it ladled over your artisinal free-range pommes frites, probably. Which just goes to show, you don’t really want an ionic liquid made of table salt.

Some ionic liquids are more useful, however. Most are poor electrical conductors, highly viscous and some are even liquid at room temperature. These tend to have names like 1-alkyl-3-methylimidazolium tetrafluoroborate, which is somewhat harder to pronounce than “salt”.

It’s also harder to pronounce than the name of that Kyrgyzstani guy who plays on your favorite hockey team. Barely.

What are ionic liquids good for? Lots of stuff! Industries like cellulose processing, industrial gas storage, nuclear fuel reprocessing and waste recycling use (or are researching) ionic liquids. They’re also being tested as electrolytes in batteries, treating wounds infected with bacterial biofilms and for heat transfer in solar energy systems. All of these things are pretty important — and also kind of boring, unless you’re a chemist or a drug-resistant biofilm.

So let’s talk about ants instead.

All the ionic liquids mentioned above are artificial, created in the laboratory. In fact, not a single naturally-occurring ionic liquid had ever been observed — until scientists took a closer look at ants.

But not with a magnifying glass on a sunny day, because that’s cruel.

South American fire ants invaded the U.S. several years ago, and it’s known that their “fire” comes from a vicious burny venom made of toxic alkaloids, which are bases. They’ve recently been joined by another South American ant species called tawny crazy ants — not to be confused with Tawny crazy Kitaen, which is a whoooole other sort of ecological hazard.

These ants have been fighting over territory for ages, and the tawny ants are one of very few species that can survive the fire ant’s flesh-melting juice. Scientists only recently discovered how they do it — by secreting and coating themselves with formic acid. The acid mixes with the fire ants’ alkaloids, neutralizing it to produce a harmless ionic liquid.

With chemical defenses in place, the tawny crazy ants survive the fire ants’ onslaught 98% of the time. And they do it with the only ionic liquid known (so far) in nature. That’s one “salt of the earth” species, there.

Image sources: University of Glasgow (ionic liquid model), Troy Nunes Is an Absolute Magician (Chopped chef), Cuz Dads Are Still People Too (hockey tongue-twister), Write a comment

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