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Analytical Chemistry


Art On Fire, App For TLC

by Craig Bettenhausen
July 20, 2015 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 93, Issue 29


Flame test: Facts, fire, and fine art.
Credit: @SurlyAmy

BANG! Red, strontium. POP! Yellow, sodium. POW! Violet, potassium. The Newscripts gang is always fun to watch Fourth of July fireworks with. The pyrotechnics that lit the sky earlier this month get their colors from the light different elements emit when heated. That same phenomenon inspired Los Angeles-based multimedia artist Amy Davis Roth to paint her “Flame Test” series.

Working with chemist and science communicator Raychelle Burks, Roth picked seven elements (Li, Na, Ca, As, Rb, In, and Ba) and painted the colors they produce in a flame test, a benchtop version of a fireworks display. They then lined the 11- x 17-inch flame pictures with facts about each element. “Fireworks are something that everyone is familiar with, and that familiarity can draw a person who would normally not be interested in science into the conversation,” Roth says.

Roth says she got into science-inspired art by way of the skeptic community. “As time went on, I found out I wasn’t very much moved by the idea of repeatedly debunking myths about bigfoot,” she says. “I was much more interested in the complex ideas that come from cutting-edge scientific research. Scientists love to talk about their work, and I love to make visual representations, so I started teaming up with researchers.”

In addition to the flame test pieces, she’s painted representations of NASA’s New Horizons mission to Pluto and of the brain’s von Economo neurons. Roth also runs a website, “Mad Art Lab,” and podcast, Mad Art Cast, focused on the intersection of art and science. Her line of ceramic jewelry inspired by science can be found in the Surly-Ramics shop on

Art can change minds. PoChu Hsu, on the other hand, says he “wants to use code to change the world.” Hsu, a programming student at National Taiwan University, in Taipei, started by helping his girlfriend pass organic chemistry with his TLC Chemistry Tools mobile app (

Credit: iTunes
App for that: Get your Rf values, no ruler required.
A screen shot of an iPhone app that reads TLC plates.
Credit: iTunes
App for that: Get your Rf values, no ruler required.

Synthetic chemists use thin-layer chromatography, or TLC, to check the progress of their reactions, test the purity of their chemicals, and model the larger chromatographic systems they’ll use to purify their precious products.

In TLC, analytes or mixtures thereof are dabbed onto a thin layer of silica or alumina mounted on a glass, metal, or plastic plate. One end of the plate is submerged in a solvent, and as the solvent wicks up the thin layer, it carries the analytes with it. The more closely an analyte moves with the rising solvent, as opposed to sticking to the thin layer, the higher its Rf value. Rf values can be used to identify substances.

Hsu’s app takes a picture of the user’s TLC plate, maps the spots made by the analytes, and calculates their Rf values. Simple, says Johns Hopkins University synthetic chemist David R. Levine, and “certainly faster than doing it manually.” Levine test-drove the app for Newscripts. He points out that although it’s unsafe to handle one’s cell phone with potentially contaminated safety gloves on, the app is nonetheless useful—and because it costs nothing, it’s worth a try.

The app is available for the iPhone, and an Android version is coming out soon. Hsu says, “Chemistry makes our life better; I’m very glad to help you run your lab more effectively.”

Craig Bettenhausen wrote this week’s column. Please send comments and suggestions to


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