Friday, September 13, 2013

Countdown to Opening Night by the Elements: Number 17

We are down to number 17 in Fearless’ walk through the periodic table of the elements.  Surely there is a Washington Capital who can be matched to this number…


Chlorine is a member of the “halogen” family of chemical elements.  As a group, halogens are very reactive.  In fact, if you were to put chlorine and hydrogen together (you want to be far away when you do this), you would get a pretty big bang.  But, chlorine happens to react this way under a very narrow set of conditions.  It has to be in the presence of light and heat.  Doing it Nome, Alaska, under a dark winter sky is not likely to have the same effect as doing it in Rock Creek Park at high noon on one of those 100 degree days in August.  Not that we intend (or that you should contemplate) carrying out that experiment.

Chlorine has been used by humans almost since there were humans.  It is one of the constituents of common salt, but there is archeological evidence that it was used as brine as far back as 8,000 years ago.  It was not discovered as an element until 1774, by – yes, another Swedish chemist – Carl Wilhelm Scheele (what, did these guys have side bets on who could discover the most chemical elements?).  He was much more creative than his chemist brethren, naming the newly discovered element “dephlogisticated munatic acid air.”  He should have paid more attention to what he had than naming it, since he might not have actually “discovered” the element.  He isolated it as a gas, which was not the same as actually discovering it in its elemental form.

It took Sir Humphrey Davy (coming up on the outside on the Swedes in the Discover That Element sweepstakes) to actually establish chlorine as an element.  He named it “chlorine” for the greek word, “chloros,” meaning “green-yellow,” since chlorine is a greenish yellow gas.

That mystery finally solved, it was left to find a way to put it to use.  Chlorine does have its place in manufacture and consumer products, found in such things as plastics, solvents, household cleaning products, insecticides, and agricultural products.  One of the more common uses it has is as a disinfectant, and this is one of those things in which science meets game show. 

Back in the day, folks found interesting uses for animal guts – strings for musical instruments, as an aid in the manufacture of gold leaf, and any number of other exotic uses.  But processing the animal guts into a useable product was an unpleasant and unhealthy endeavor.  An organization engaged in the promotion and advancement of the Industrial Revolution in France held a contest.  Really.  The call went out to find a less unhealthy, less unpleasant way to separate the inner membrane of animal intestines without causing decay. 

It would be a chemist by the name of Antoine Germain Labarraque who figured it out.  For solving the problem with a chlorinated bleaching concoction that would be named “Eau de Labarraque (we are not making this up),” he won the princely sum (in those days) of 1,500 francs.  No word on if he shouted “I’m going to EuroDisney” upon being named the winner.

All this is a roundabout (wa-a-a-a-ay roundabout, cuz) way of saying that chlorine is an element that has been in use for quite a while, one that can be a quite reactive element, but only in a limited range of situations.  When it does react, it can do so explosively.  It is kind of like a veteran player who might get regular shifts at 5-on-5, but who does not get much time on either the power play or penalty kills.  When he is out there, he can be “explosive” with bursts of speed that leave defensemen wheezing as they try to catch up.

Chlorine… the “Jason Chimera” of the elements of the periodic table.