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10 Year Old Discovers Explosive, Chemistry Comic Books

by Craig Bettenhausen
February 27, 2012 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 90, Issue 9


Credit: Kenneth Boehr
Model student: Lazen and her molecule.
Photograph of 10-year-old Clara Lazen holding the molecular model she built of tetrakis(nitratoxycarbon)methane, which inspired a paper in Comput. Theor. Chem.
Credit: Kenneth Boehr
Model student: Lazen and her molecule.

A first scholarly publication is a moment of great pride for any young scientist. Clara Lazen of Kansas City, Mo., will have that one in the bag before she learns algebra.

Last year, Lazen was experimenting with a molecular modeling kit in Kenneth Boehr’s fifth-grade classroom at Border Star Montessori when she came up with a brand-new molecule. The atoms fit together and satisfied the bonding rules from her lessons. “All the holes” in the model atoms “have to be filled in for it to be stable,” she explained in a TV interview. When asked whether the compound was real, Boehr wasn’t sure, so he sent a picture of it to his friend from college, computational chemist Robert W. Zoellner of Humboldt State University.

Zoellner’s search of the literature showed Lazen’s molecule, tetrakis(nitratoxycarbon)methane, to be a novel compound featuring a novel moiety: an NO3 group bound to a carbon through its three oxygen atoms. That high-energy configuration has not been observed in organic systems and would be synthetically challenging, Zoellner says.

However, after performing energy calculations on the molecule with density functional and Hartree-Fock theoretical methods, Zoellner concluded that “this bonding mode for a nitrate group appears to be computationally supportable, even if thermodynamically disfavored.” He reported the findings in a recent paper coauthored with Lazen and Boehr (Comp. Theor. Chem., DOI: 10.1016/j.comptc.2011.10.011).

Lazen’s compound might one day be used for energy storage or as an explosive, according to the team. Despite her youth, Lazen has grown-up ideas about funding. “I can sell this to the military,” she says, “for money.”

When Lazen hits high school chemistry class, she might have more tools at her disposal than modeling kits, if a project at the University of California, San Diego, succeeds.

Credit: Chemorphesis
Treasure: Getting from reactants to products can be quite a journey.
A reaction coordinate diagram, reimagined as a treasure map, pulled from the Chemorphesis comic-book story “Catalysis.”
Credit: Chemorphesis
Treasure: Getting from reactants to products can be quite a journey.

“Chemorphesis” is a comic-book series aimed at teaching key chemistry concepts through the adventures of anthropomorphized chemical species. The project began out of conversations between Rebecca Ou, an undergraduate chemistry major and writing minor, and Haim Weizman, a professor of chemical education. Ou wanted to write stories explaining chemistry concepts, and Weizman suggested using a comic-book format to help them find an audience. They recruited undergrads Annie Jia and Angeline Yu to produce the Japanese-style artwork and build a website.

In the first comic, “Musical Chairs,” nucleophilic substitution is explored through the tribulations of a rock band called SN1. The band’s prima donna vocalist walks out, leaving the band in an unstable state. Later, after a bass guitar (hydride) shift, a new nucleophilic vocalist joins the group and SN1 is ready to perform.

“Catalysis” re­imagines the familiar reaction coordinate diagram as a treasure map. Four adventurers find the map, which they follow over a dangerous mountain. The way is blocked by a fearsome dragon atop an imposing peak, and the group lacks the energy to overcome such a barrier. Just as the treasure seekers are ready to turn back, a mysterious stranger appears and catalyzes their passage along a convoluted, secret route through the mountain.

Whimsical as it might seem, the project is not just for fun. “Like everything, we think about it as an experiment,” Weizman says. The students have earned college credit for their work, and Weizman plans to research the efficacy of the comics as textbook supplements.

“Chemorphesis” is gaining popularity fast; an excess of visitors crashed its website right as the Newscripts gang was getting to the good part. The project has since secured more stable hosting; it’s now at, and Ou and the group are actively working on new stories.


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